Sensors Lost From NPOESS Could Go On Other Satellites
While the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) weather and climate system may no longer suffer enormous soaring costs and lengthy program delays, thanks to abandoning plans for placing some sensors on the satellites, the problems could return if attempts are made to reverse course and place those sensors on the NPOESS satellites, rather than on other platforms.
That was one of the points during a lengthy hearing of the House Science and Technology Committee energy and environment subcommittee.
As well, one lesson from NPOESS being delayed for years is that too many hands were on the controls, because the troubled program was run by three agencies — NASA, the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Department of Commerce – so that decision-making could chew up inordinate amounts of time as costs mounted.
It seems plain to some key lawmakers that decisions still are slow in coming, specifically in deciding on how to deal with the climate sensors that were dropped from NPOESS.
One lawmaker expressing those concerns was Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee.
He told John Marburger III, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) with the White House, that OSTP is lagging in deciding how to ensure the United States somehow obtains the capabilities that were to be provided by the abandoned sensors.
“My concern is that the effort headed by OSTP, with analytical support from NASA and NOAA, is lagging the pace needed to make effective decisions,” Lampson said.
The chairman warned that “at some point, the manifests for what will fly on the NPOESS satellites have to be finalized, and so decisions are not just due, I believe they are overdue.”
Lampson said unless NPOESS decisions are made, and further delays eventuate, data won’t be gathered and the nation won’t be able to have a set of figures tracking changes in climate, such as global warming. “Some breaches in data collection may be unavoidable at this point,” Lampson said.
He asked that President Bush provide money in budgets for the agencies to permit funding more sensors.
Meanwhile, a year after the NPOESS program was found to have breached cost-overrun limits, lawmakers are confronted with a program in which “the same [sensor] instruments [are] causing us some of the same concerns about risk” of further cost increases and schedule delays, Lampson said.
Marburger noted, however, that data on climate and environment may just as well be obtained if sensors are placed on other satellite platforms or on some “free-flyer” satellite that would carry just one sensor, rather than on NPOESS. It “does make sense to consider free-flying missions” for some sensors, Marburger said.
As well, he said, there is “a possibility that other countries may have capabilities that we can use” to fill gaps in environmental data.
Concerns about the NPOESS program were bipartisan.
Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, ranking Republican on the subcommittee, at first conceded that “for the most part, the program is on track under the new plan [downsizing the number of sensors] announced in June 2006.”
But then Inglis expressed worry that things may not continue to go well.
“Simply because things appear under control right now, I do not want to imply that the Congress, or the administration for that matter, can back off from our close oversight of NPOESS.” Rather, he said, lax oversight led to the huge cost overruns.
Congress, NOAA, the Air Force and NASA “cannot sit back and relax or we risk yet another four-year delay or doubling of costs,” Inglis said. And that means responsible parties must move rapidly to decide how to avoid gaps in critical environmental data, he said. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study was presented to the subcommittee by another witness, David A. Powner, director of information technology management issues with the GAO.
According to Powner, “the NPOESS program office has made progress in restructuring the acquisition by establishing and implementing interim program plans guiding contractors’ work activities in 2006 and 2007.”
But the NPOESS program isn’t out of the woods yet, Powner cautioned. “Important tasks remain to be done,” he said. And he cautioned that lawmakers may see yet more increased costs over time.
GAO estimates that NPOESS costs have more than doubled to $12.5 billion. (That is $11.5 billion for four satellites in 2013 through 2026, plus $1 billion operating costs.)
Contractors on the program include Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC], the prime contractor, and Raytheon Co. [RTN], a leading player.