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Complexity of NPOESS

Thank you for a strong dose of common sense in your May 29 editorial concerning problems with the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) [“Grandstanding Won’t Fix NPOESS,” page 18]. It really is unfair for members of Congress to call for the dismissal of respected public officials because of problems on a single program in which they played a limited role. If this same standard were applied across the entire federal government, the ranks of senior bureaucrats (not to mention legislators) might be completely depopulated.

The public interest is better served by fixing the problems than shooting hapless bystanders. As you correctly point out, several of the most important officials involved in mismanaging NPOESS have departed government, and thus are no longer susceptible to federal sanction. So let’s focus on what really matters, starting with three basic facts.

First of all, NPOESS is a big improvement over existing weather satellites at a time when the public is rightly concerned about changing climate patterns. It will deliver weather information at least four times faster than existing constellations, and with far greater precision due to the co-registration of 13 different sensors. In other words, hosting so many sensors on a single spacecraft generates a picture of unprecedented clarity and detail.

Second, the main way that complexity has contributed to program problems is through a baroque management structure rather than a deficient design. It is no great engineering challenge to bolt a dozen sensors to a bus if you plan to integrate their collections on the ground rather than in space — which is what the NPOESS design does. This architecture anticipates the recent move by senior officials to focus more on satellite ground segments, because integration and manipulation of diverse data is intrinsically easier there than in space.

Third, the biggest technical hurdles in producing NPOESS spacecraft reside at the subcontractor level, where over 70 percent of program funds are expended. A handful of suppliers were awarded key sensor work years before a system integrator was selected, and it is their deficient performance that is mainly responsible for program delays. The federal government certainly didn’t help matters with its stop-and-start budgeting practices, but let’s place blame where it truly belongs — with Raytheon and the other suppliers who failed to perform.

I’m no great admirer of the Bush administration, but it has been a good friend of space, and administration officials like Ron Sega and Conrad Lautenbacher have spent much of their time in office trying to fix problems inherited from the Clinton years. NPOESS is an essential program that is eminently fixable, so let’s forget all the name-calling and focus on making sure we have the weather information we need the next time a Katrina hits.

Loren B. Thompson

Chief Operating Officer, Lexington Institute