Things have gone awry early on the U.S. effort to develop a new generation of geostationary-orbiting weather satellites: The system capability and program scope have been scaled back significantly, and yet the projected costs continue to rise. Scariest of all, award of the prime contracts for both the space and ground segments of the program, dubbed Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R), are still more than half a year away.

According to Mary Ellen Kicza, assistant administrator for satellite and information services at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), GOES-R’s cost is projected to rise from the previous estimate of $6.9 billion to somewhere between $7 billion and $8 billion. The U.S. Government Accountability Office projects a much higher number: $9.3 billion. While it is impossible to say at this point who is correct, the history of satellite programs in general is not on NOAA’s side.

GOES-R’s own particular history, meanwhile, is checkered. Just over a year ago, NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher told Congress that the program’s projected cost had nearly doubled, from $6.2 billion to more than $11 billion, due in large part to greater system complexity than expected.

To wrestle it under control, NOAA restructured the program, reducing the number of satellites to two – previous plans called for anywhere from three to eight – and dropping a key sensor package known as the Hyperspectral Environmental Suite. That sensor, characterized by one NOAA official as the most complex instrument development effort ever undertaken by the agency, was one of the capabilities that truly made GOES-R a next-generation system.

The Hyperspectral Environmental Suite was to replace the GOES sounder, which takes vertical profiles of atmospheric temperature and humidity. It also would have collected

a host of new measurements

. After canceling the


, NOAA considered whether to include a legacy-type sounder on

GOES-R but ultimately decided against it. Instead,

atmospheric soundings will be derived from the satellites’ other main sensor, the Advanced Baseline Imager, using special software. These measurements will be augmented with readings taken by weather balloons and other platforms to produce data comparable to the current GOES satellites, according to NOAA officials. This may be so, but it seems like a lot of trouble to go through to keep up with the past.

Meanwhile, a large chunk of the savings claimed by NOAA following the GOES-R restructuring is illusory. Given that NOAA must maintain coverage of the East and West coasts of the United States at all times, reducing the number of GOES-R satellites can only result in one of two things: more satellites – and costs – being added to the program at a later date; or shifting those costs to a follow-on program that will have to be started earlier.

It is safe to say that NOAA and its GOES procurement partner, NASA, reached a bit too far with the Hyperspectral Environmental Suite. To be fair, they are not alone in having stumbled over technical difficulties. Furthermore, there is no sin in trying to advance the state of the art in weather sensors. But hindsight argues strongly against attempting great leaps in capability on critical public safety

programs like GOES; NASA’s scientific and technology-demonstration satellites are far better suited to this role.

Unfortunately, NASA budgets have been stretched too thin of late for the agency to perform this important function.

Congress, meanwhile, must maintain a close watch on GOES-R and future weather satellite programs to sound the alarm when costs begin climbing above estimates. Hearings – like the one held Oct. 23 by the House Science and Technology Committee that brought the latest cost concerns to light – are always helpful, but they tend to be ad hoc; a more formal oversight mechanism is needed.

Fortunately, just such a mechanism has been proposed in the Senate version of the commerce, justice, science appropriations bill for 2008. Modeled after the so-called Nunn-McCurdy law that applies to U.S. Defense Department programs, the measure, introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), would require NOAA to notify Congress and take other actions if cost projections for its weather satellite systems rise above a 15 percent threshold.

This will not by itself put an end to NOAA’s satellite acquisition difficulties, just as Nunn-McCurdy has not been a panacea for defense procurement. But it should be helpful in getting potential or

small problems addressed sooner, before they morph into full-blown procurement fiascos.

House appropriators should adopt Mikulski’s provision during the upcoming conference on the commerce, justice, science bill. Should U.S. President George W. Bush carry through with his threat to veto the bill over unrelated funding matters, lawmakers should find another legislative vehicle to create this important and long-overdue tripwire for NOAA.