U.S. lawmakers, as well as the American public, have every right to be up in arms over the government’s bungled acquisition of a new generation of civil-military weather satellites, but calls for the dismissal of the top officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are both misguided and unfair.
The problems that have delayed and inflated the cost of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) have plagued just about every other major U.S. space program. Like the U.S. Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System and Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite system, NPOESS stalled when one of its several parallel development efforts stumbled, and costs ballooned as a result. On NPOESS, the problems likely were compounded by the fact that it is jointly managed by the Air Force and NOAA, with NASA as a junior partner.
A hard-hitting report by U.S. Commerce Department Inspector General Johnnie Frazier certainly implicates NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher in the government’s failure to address the NPOESS problem until it was too late. But it also is clear from the report that Mr. Lautenbacher, a newcomer to space acquisition oversight, got little to no help from his peers on a tri-agency NPOESS oversight panel. In addition, he received what appears to be bad information from the NPOESS program manager.
There is much to be learned from Mr. Frazier’s report, “Poor Management Oversight and Ineffective Incentives Leave NPOESS Program Well Over Budget and Behind Schedule,” which was released May 11 at a hearing of the House Science Committee. As committee chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) noted, the report is a case study in how not to manage a government program.
The report says that during a critical period between 2002 and 2005, the NPOESS Executive Committee — composed of Mr. Lautenbacher, then-Air Force Undersecretary Peter Teets and then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe — failed to challenge the program manager’s rosy status reports despite ample evidence that not all was well. The report further noted that NPOESS prime contractor Northrop Grumman Space Technology continued to receive close to the maximum performance incentive payments even after the program flew off the rails.
The day after the hearing, two prominent Science Committee Democrats, Reps. Bart Gordon (Tenn.) and David Wu (Ore.), wrote U.S. President George W. Bush calling not only for Mr. Lautenbacher’s head, but also for that of his deputy, John Kelly. The lawmakers let the public in on their suggestion in a May 15 press release, which attributed the NPOESS problem to a NOAA management failure.
While NOAA did not exactly shine in its NPOESS management oversight role, to heap all the blame on that agency is unfair. To begin with, NOAA traditionally has relied on NASA to buy its satellites, and thus lacks the experience of its NPOESS partners. The Executive Committee member best qualified to successfully challenge the status reports of program manager John Cunningham was the overburdened Mr. Teets, who at the time was performing several top jobs at the Air Force. According to the inspector general’s report, Mr. Cunningham insisted that development issues with a primary NPOESS sensor — which ultimately tripped up the entire program — were under control.
Mssrs. Teets, O’Keefe and Cunningham have left government, which is one reason why Mr. Lautenbacher is taking all the heat. But with two Democrats calling for his ouster, and key Republicans including Rep. Boehlert saying he should stay on as NPOESS is restructured, the matter has taken on political overtones.
This is a counterproductive distraction: Instead of grandstanding, lawmakers and government officials on both sides of the political aisle should focus on creating a new NPOESS management structure that is not failure prone. NPOESS already is behind schedule, and with a restructuring plan due out in June, there is no time to waste.
The Executive Committee’s plan to establish a Pentagon-based program executive who will oversee NPOESS management but also have other responsibilities is a good first step. A balance must be struck here: the program executive must be detached enough to exercise independent oversight, yet also must make this critical program a top priority.
The program executive also should be responsible for determining any award fees on the restructured NPOESS program. Under the previous arrangement, the program manager had this responsibility, according to the inspector general’s report. Whether or not this is standard practice — opinions seem to differ on this — it carries the appearance of a conflict of interest, since award fees often are used as metric for judging how well a program is being run. One thing i s for certain: payment of high award fees on over-budget space programs is not unique to NPOESS.
Congress and White House officials also should insist that members of the NPOESS Executive Committee, which now consists of Mr. Lautenbacher, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and Air Force Undersecretary Ron Sega, continue to meet on a regular basis to give this program the oversight it needs and deserves.