Aerospace Corp. Delivers Tough NPOESS Postmortem

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The U.S. government’s effort to merge its civil and military weather satellite programs failed due to the divergent missions of the agencies involved, a dysfunctional management structure, poor contractor oversight, inexperience among government program managers and unrealistic cost and schedule estimates, among other reasons, according to a report by the Aerospace Corp., which provides engineering and analytical services supporting U.S. Air Force space programs.

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) was intended to save the government money by merging the polar-orbiting weather satellite programs run by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Air Force. The White House disbanded the program in early 2010 following massive cost overruns and schedule delays, directing NOAA and the Air Force to pursue their own systems.

The report characterized NPOESS as a “forced marriage” imposed by “a NOAA Administrator with the drive and political capital to bring his vision to reality” and the “force of the Office of the Vice President of the United States to implement an agenda to reinvent government and claim a small portion of the Peace Dividend by converging the military and civil weather satellite programs.” The NOAA administrator at the time NPOESS was hatched in 1994 was James Baker; the vice president was Al Gore.

The marriage was sustained over time by a belief among senior officials that NPOESS’s problems could be overcome, but the multibillion-dollar program ultimately outlasted its base of political support, according to the Aerospace document, dated Dec. 1, 2010, and titled, “NPOESS Lessons Evaluation: Executive Summary.”

“Alliances between agencies with different mission priorities and cultures are ill-fated,” the report said.

NASA was a junior partner in the NOAA-Air Force NPOESS Integrated Program Office with responsibility for technology insertion and climate change monitoring. NASA was assigned the lead role in a precursor mission dubbed the NPOESS Preparatory Project, which was intended to demonstrate the main NPOESS sensors while gathering climate change research data, a mission that was to be taken on by the merged weather satellite program.

But the precursor mission “became a focal point for costly technical and programmatic challenges of satisfying climate and operational requirements with a single sensor,” the report said. Moreover, it became an arena for a clash of procurement cultures between the Air Force and NASA, the report said, noting that mission was considered operational by NASA and NOAA but a risk-reduction exercise by the Pentagon.

Climate change monitoring was dropped as an NPOESS mission requirement as part of a 2006 program restructuring due to cost overruns, and this left NASA “disenfranchised” as a program stakeholder, the report said. The program had difficulty taking advantage of NASA’s technical expertise, as moving from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to the NPOESS Integrated Program Office was considered a bad career move, the report said.

Meanwhile, Air Force program managers assigned to key NPOESS program elements often had no space acquisition experience, the report said.

NPOESS’s woes have long been attributed in large part to development of one key sensor, the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite. The report said that while there were no fundamental technology issues with NPOESS, the development of that particular sensor was hampered by an unrealistic development schedule based on poorly understood design heritage.

In general, the report said, the government did a poor job of overseeing the sensor contractors before handing that responsibility to Northrop Grumman Space Technology, the NPOESS prime contractor. Northrop Grumman’s NPOESS contract did not establish clear guidelines for overseeing the instrument builders, the report said. Moreover, Northrop Grumman lacked a clear understanding of the culture and capabilities of those companies, the report said.

“The Government and the prime contractor failed to establish clear, detailed supplier performance expectations and appropriate incentives,” the report said.

 

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