GAO Report Examines National Polar-orbiting Operation Environmental Satellite System

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Publication date: 
9 July 2010

A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report requested by the  House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and  Oversight sheds light on years of technical delays, administrative mismanagement,  and the spiraling cost of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental  Satellite System (NPOESS).
The United States operates two satellite programs, the Polar-orbiting  Operational Environmental Satellite (POES), and the Defense Meteorological  Satellite Program (DMSP) run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric  Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense/Air Force (DOD)  respectively. There are currently one operational POES satellite and two  operational DMSP satellites.  Both systems  collect environmental data that are used for civilian and military purposes.  Data received from POES and DMSP satellites  include cloud coverage, temperature, humidity, ozone distribution, snow cover,  and sea surface temperatures among other measures.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton issued Presidential  Decision Directive/NSTC-2 that reasoned, “While the civil and military  missions of POES and DMSP remain unchanged, establishing a single, converged,  operational system can reduce duplication of efforts in meeting common  requirements while satisfying the unique requirements of the civil and national  security communities.” 
NOAA, DOD, and NASA were directed to create an Integrated Program Office to  manage, plan, develop, fabricate, and operate what was to become the NPOESS.  Responsibilities for NPOESS were divided  among agencies with NOAA performing overall management of data and satellite  operations, the DOD handling acquisition, and NASA integrating new “cost  effective” technologies.  Budgeting was  similarly divided with NOAA and DOD paying for NPOESS and NASA paying for  specific technologies and studies.
The initial plan developed by the tri-agency Integrated Program Office was, in  retrospect, ambitious.  As the GAO report  explains, six satellites loaded with 10 environmental sensors and three subsystems  would collect data from “atmospheric, cloud cover, environmental, climatic,  oceanographic, and solar-geophysical observations,” while “subsystems were to  support non-environmental search and rescue efforts, system survivability, and  environmental data collection activities.”   Importantly, a demonstration satellite—the NPOESS Preparatory Project  (NPP)—was scheduled to launch before the other six satellites to test new  sensor technologies and to prevent a climate data deficit if NOAA’s POES  satellite does not operate past its scheduled lifetime.
NPP was to launch by October 2006, with the first NPOESS satellite to follow by  November 2009.  Neither launch date would  be met.  The cost of satellite  development, launch, operation, and ground-based satellite data processing was  originally estimated in 2002 to cost $6.5 billion through 2018.  That figure was also off.
By November 2005 the NPOESS program was critically behind schedule and the  estimated budget had swelled to over $10 billion.  The cost overrun triggered the Nunn-McCurdy  statue which requires the Secretary of Defense to certify that a DOD program running  25 percent over budget is essential to national security, without alternatives,  has a reasonable new budget, and is managed competently.
The NPOESS program was retooled during the Nunn-McCurdy recertification  process. In June 2006 a $12.5 billion budget was deemed necessary to operate  NPOESS satellites through 2024.  The  number of satellites was reduced, from six to four.  The test NPP satellite was retained.  The number of sensors and subsystems on  NPOESS satellites were also reduced from 10 and three to seven and two  respectively.  Four of the remaining  sensors were downgraded in functionality.
As the GAO report notes, “the revised NPOESS system had significantly less  capability for providing global climate, ocean, and space environment measures  that was originally planned.” In fact the number of data records that could be  collected dropped from 55 to 39.  Data on  “cloud particle size and distribution, sea surface height, net solar radiation  at the top of the atmosphere, and products to depict the electric fields in the  space environment” were sacrificed.  The  four downgraded sensors would reduce the quality of six data records including  measures of ozone, and soil moisture.   Response from the climate science community prompted NPOESS managers to  reintroduce some sensors planned for removal, but overall the NPOESS system is  less robust than intended.
Aforementioned delays and revisions through Nunn-McCurdy pushed back the NPP  launch date to January 2010, and the subsequent NPOESS satellites an estimated  three to five years.
While the Nunn-McCurdy recertification provided a roadmap for NPOESS, a host of  difficulties conspired to take NPOESS off-course.  The tri-agency acquisitions process proved  cumbersome; by May 2008 key acquisition documents were more than a year  late.  At the same time, “poor  workmanship and testing delays” pushed back the delivery of the  Visible/Infrared Imager/Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor eight months, which in  turn pushed back the NPP launch date to June 2010.  In December 2008 the NPOESS budget was  revised upwards to $13.95 billion.
Six months later, continued delays and poor management meant another NPOESS  budget estimate, this time $14.95 billion and more launch delays.  The NPP satellite launch was rescheduled for  January 2011, with satellites one and two to follow in 2014 and 2016.  While NPP was intended to serve as a test satellite  and as a stopgap if the POES satellite did not continue to operate past its  scheduled lifetime, NPOESS managers decided to use NPP data operationally.
In August 2009 the Executive Office of the President created a taskforce led by  the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to investigate the NPOESS  program’s long standing problems.   Ultimately that taskforce recommended against continuing NPOESS.  Instead, NOAA and DOD should pursue separate  satellite systems. To avoid duplication, the taskforce provided additional  direction.  “NOAA is to be responsible  for the afternoon orbit and the observations planned for the first and third  NPOESS satellites.  DOD is to be  responsible for the morning orbit and the observations planned for the second  and fourth NPOESS satellites.”
The taskforce’s decision is not a panacea for delays or cost overruns.  The GAO believes that, “the impact of the  decision to disband the program on expected costs, schedules and promised  capabilities has not yet been fully determined.   However it is likely that the decision will further delay the first  satellite’s launch schedule, add to the overall cost, and remove selected  capabilities.”
At present NOAA has a preliminary plan for the Joint Polar Satellite System  (JPSS), their new satellite acquisition program.  NOAA’s first JPSS satellite (formerly the  first NPOESS satellite, after NPP) is scheduled for a 2015 launch, followed by  the second JPSS satellite (formerly the third NPOESS satellite) launch in 2018.  NOAA may remove sensors that were planned for  both satellites.  The JPSS program will  be run out of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, with NOAA providing program  direction, staff, and budget, while NASA provides a program manager. NOAA  estimates the JPSS program will cost $11.9 billion.
DOD is responsible for later satellites, and has more time to develop their  NPOESS replacement program.  Since DOD’s  acquisition plan is incomplete a comprehensive budget estimate is unavailable,  but DOD’s initial estimate begins at $5 billion.
While the NPOESS program has largely been dissolved, work on the NPP satellite continues.  As has been the case for years, the NPP faces  a myriad of problems.   In 2009 a vacuum  test of a sensor revealed design flaws in several circuit cards.  Later that year, components of the same  sensor were damaged when a subcontractor “failed to adhere to proper test  processes.”  NPP cannot launch until  September 2011 at the earliest, or five years after it was originally scheduled  to launch.  Outstanding problems with  sensors and contract liabilities could further delay the NPP launch, risking a  window of time when the POES satellite may fail.  Regardless of when NPP becomes functional,  for technical reasons, the data it collects will be less timely than current  satellites and less secure (NPP’s security controls are based on 1998 DOD  standards) than future ones.
The GAO made several recommendations for an orderly transition from NPOESS to  individual programs at NOAA and DOD.  GAO  recommends that NOAA and DOD move quickly on outstanding questions of cost,  schedules, and satellite capabilities; identify risks during transition and  organize offices to respond to them; identify the most important NPOESS  products and direct NPOESS managers to give those areas necessary resources;  and develop time frames for making key decisions regarding the NPP satellite.  Both NOAA and DOD offered favorable responses  to those recommendations.
The Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight discussed the GAO report on  June 29.  In their opening statements  Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) and Ranking Member Paul Broun (R-GA)  expressed similar concerns about cost and delays.  Miller called the decision to divide NPOESS  between NOAA and DOD “Solomonic,” but cautioned, “splitting the program in two  may simply create two new programs with the same problems.”  Miller also characterized the removal of  climate sensors from satellites “ill-thought through” and a decision that  “would have to be reversed.”
The committee’s concerns were mirrored by the GAO’s David Powner whose written  testimony included the following:
“While the two agencies are scrambling to develop plans for their respective  programs, it is not yet clear what the programs will deliver, when, and at what  cost, but it is likely that they will cost more than the existing NPOESS baseline  and recent program office estimates.”
And later:
“Although initial steps have been taken to ensure the short-term continuity of  key climate and space weather measurements from satellites, the federal  government has not taken the necessary steps to ensure the long-term  sustainment of these critical measurements.   For example, NOAA recently removed sensors from JPSS that were  originally planned for the NPOESS satellites in the afternoon orbit, but it is  unclear how this will affect other agencies and programs.  Until an interagency strategy for earth  observation is established, and a clear process for implementing it is in  place, federal agencies will continue to procure their immediate priorities on  an ad hoc basis, the economic benefits of a coordinated approach to investments  in earth observation may be lost, and the continuity of key measurements may be  lost.  This will hinder our nation’s  ability to understand long-term climate changes and risk our ability to measure,  predict, and mitigate the effects of space weather.”