Editorial: Beware Interagency Development Programs

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A recently released report by the Aerospace Corp. on the now-defunct National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program offers fresh insights and anecdotes that reinforce a message delivered in November by a National Research Council panel: Interagency space development programs are failure prone, rarely save money and should be undertaken with extreme caution, if at all.

That notion is far from new, of course. From the very beginning of NPOESS, which was hatched in 1994 as a money-saving merger of U.S. civil and military weather satellite systems, skeptics cited the poor track record of interagency development programs, among them a pair of U.S. Defense Department-NASA initiatives: the National Aero-Space Plane and Landsat 7. The former, a bid to develop an air-breathing vehicle capable of reaching orbit, was a technological bridge too far and likely would have failed under any circumstances. But there was nothing exotic about Landsat 7, a mapping satellite that originally was to carry two sensors, one for civilian use and one for the military. The military’s High-Resolution Multispectral Imager was dropped from Landsat 7 when the Pentagon quit the program amid disputes with NASA over funding and priorities that resulted in major delays and wasted expenditures.

NPOESS is perhaps the most glaring example to date of the pitfalls facing interagency development efforts. NPOESS was managed by an integrated program office led by the Defense Department and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which together provided the lion’s share of the funding, with NASA as a junior partner lending its technical expertise in space hardware development. The dysfunctional structure of the office, where no one had clear authority to make key programmatic decisions and costs skyrocketed as a result, was well documented long before the partnership was dissolved last February.

The Aerospace Corp. report, dated Dec. 1, offers a more detailed look at the institutional impediments to NPOESS. For example, a NASA-led NPOESS precursor mission became an arena for acquisition culture clashes with the Pentagon, which regarded the satellite as a technology demonstrator whereas for the civil space agency, and for NOAA, it was an important climate research mission.

NASA, which has tremendous technical expertise and traditionally has served as NOAA’s satellite procurement agent, became disenfranchised when climate research was dropped from NPOESS mission objectives in a 2006 program restructuring. Moreover, NASA experts were disinclined to take assignments in the integrated program office because doing so was considered to be a bad career move, according to the report.

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

In a recent interview, Daniel Baker, a space physicist who co-chaired the National Research Council report, said there need to be clear lines of authority on collaborative programs and that the participating agencies should stick to the roles for which they are best suited. But the overarching message of the report, he said, was similar to the conclusion of the Aerospace report: In general, interagency space development programs should be avoided.

This point cannot be emphasized enough, especially in a constrained budgetary environment that is bound to generate well-intentioned calls for more interagency collaboration. Lawmakers or other government officials tempted by the prospect of cost savings should carefully review the Aerospace Corp. and National Research Council reports before pressing for any mergers of NASA, Air Force or intelligence community space missions. History is replete with failed attempts to develop satellites jointly, while examples of money-saving successes are all but nonexistent, especially when civil and military agencies are involved.

This does not mean U.S. agencies shouldn’t be looking for opportunities to leverage one another’s space assets — the Pentagon is a big user of NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, for example. But joint development is a different story altogether. Any such projects should be viewed with great skepticism, even if the benefits, to the agencies involved and to the taxpayers, seem obvious.