U.S. Congress “Surprised” by the Cost of Wasted Weather Satellite Opportunities

By | September 26, 2011 | Feature, Government

[Satellite News 09-26-11] While congressional committees work to trim the United States’ costs by targeting valuable science and weather satellite programs, Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Andy Harris (R- Md.) admitted during a Sept. 23 House hearing that the government has already spent more than $6 billion on satellites that have yet to launch.
   Much needed satellite projects, including those under the management of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), have taken as long as 17 years, more than $6 billion in taxpayer money and three complete project overhauls to complete, according to Harris. The NOAA’s existing National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOES) was originally scheduled to launch six weather-tracking satellites before 2018. Harris highlighted the fact that the program has yet to launch the first test satellite into orbit.
   “This is the poster child of a runaway government program that is over-promised, over-budget and, honestly, under-performed,” said Harris.
   U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Director of Information Technology Management Issues David Powner responded by laying some of the blame for the blame on Harris and the rest of Congress, which has “failed to pass a year-long budget bill since 1997.”
   Powner said the reason these weather projects have not been able to work off of a steady baseline is because Congress has failed to appropriate bursts of funding through continuing resolutions. “One of most difficult things for a project manager is uncertainty. The more re-plannings we have to do, the more uncertainty there is, the more difficult it is for us to accomplish our goals,” said Powner. “[The NOAA’s] Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), for example, will now create two satellites – one that’s set to launch Oct. 25 and another that won’t hit the skies until 2017. By that time the total price tag is expected to balloon to more than $17 billion.”
   Congressional opponents of these programs will find it difficult to argue that the budget war’s cost effects surprised them. In February of 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration announced a significant restructuring of the NPOESS Program. The administration gave the NOAA primary responsibility for the afternoon polar environmental satellite orbit and assigned the U.S. Department of Defense to take primary responsibility for the early morning orbit.
   The administration’s 2011 full-year fiscal budget aimed to put the critical NPOESS program on a more sustainable path to launch, calling the satellite system a, “national priority – essential to meeting both civil and military weather-forecasting, storm-tracking, and climate-monitoring requirements,” according to its published report.
   The administration also admitted that the program is behind schedule, over budget, and underperforming, citing independent reports and findings from an administration task force that concluded that the current program could not be successfully executed with the current management structure, and with the current budget structure.
“These challenges originate in large part because of a combination of management deficiencies that result from conflicting perspectives and priorities among the three agencies that manage the program. Serious lapses in capabilities loom as a result,” the report said.
   In 2002, the NPOESS program was estimated to cost approximately $6.5 billion for development and operations through 2018 and consisted of an initial NASA satellite to test the new sensors for launch in early 2006 and six NPOESS platforms in three orbits, the first of which was to be launched in early 2009.
   The program encountered numerous technical and management challenges, which led to restructuring of the NPOESS program in 2006 due to cost over-runs that triggered Congressionally mandated recertification. The restructured program reduced the scale of the program from six main satellites in three orbits to four satellites in two orbits.
“The NPP launch has been delayed to 2011, and the launch of the first NPOESS platform was expected to be in late 2014. These would each be delays of five years from the original plan. At that time, the new life cycle cost estimate through 2024, due to delays, was approximately $12 billion for this reduced capability. The current official baseline life-cycle cost estimate is approximately $13.9 billion,” the administration’s report said.
            The GAO also cited these announcements, and once again, blamed Congressional inaction for the growing cost issues. Satellite company executives were hesitant to comment on the issue, but noted that this is a trend that they have been dealing with for quite some time.

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