Just when NASA was finally moving out with an expedited satellite procurement to minimize a looming gap in the collection of land remote-sensing data, the Senate Appropriations Committee has threatened to halt everything unless the agency shifts gears and adopts a management strategy that is more to the committee’s liking.

The committee wants NASA to go back to the old way of running Landsat projects, in which Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., effectively played the role of prime contractor.

This is congressional meddling, plain and simple. NASA’s technical and procurement experts are — or should be — far better qualified than lawmakers to decide the quickest and most cost-effective means of getting the next Landsat satellite built and launched.

The procurement vehicle NASA has chosen for the next Landsat mission is one in which there will be an industrial prime contractor responsible for delivering the fully integrated satellite and sensor on a set schedule at a fixed price. The contractor would foot the bill for any cost growth on the effort.

This strategy does not guarantee a trouble-free program, but neither does the one being pushed by the Senate Appropriations Committee and its ranking Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. In report language accompanying the Senate version of the Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill for 2007, the committee urged NASA to procure the satellite and sensor separately and have a NASA center serve as the project manager and system integrator.

Although the report did not name a particular NASA facility, Goddard has performed that role on previous Landsat satellites.

In a written statement, Sen. Mikulski said NASA’s planned procurement strategy is “fundamentally flawed” because it “does not guarantee real competition or true government oversight.” That claim is dubious on its face, and certainly is not backed up by anything else the senator said in her statement.

The committee’s report attempts to make the case by likening NASA’s current strategy to the “failed” approach taken on the U.S. government’s National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). This is a bogus analogy: NPOESS and Landsat are both environmental satellite systems, but the similarity ends there.

The NPOESS program consists of multiple satellites that are far larger, more complex and more costly than what NASA has in mind for the next Landsat mission. The massive cost growth that forced the government to restructure NPOESS was caused by development problems with one of several main satellite sensors, coupled with a poorly conceived interagency management structure where nobody was able to take control of the situation.

The chances of a Landsat sensor-development problem are less than with NPOESS for the simple reason that there is only one sensor to worry about. More to the point, technical snags on a satellite program can occur whether or not the lead system integrator is a NASA center or an industrial contractor. In fact, Landsat 7, which was managed under Sen. Mikulski’s preferred model, experienced delays and cost growth due to a problem with its main sensor that was discovered during testing.

Unlike NPOESS, the Landsat procurement is being managed by a single agency, NASA, which should be able to exercise reasonable oversight even if the system integrator is a private company. Besides, a prime contractor working under a fixed-price contract has just as much incentive — arguably more so — to keep costs under control as a NASA center.

Finally, it must be noted that the NPOESS satellites and sensors were purchased under separate, competitively awarded contracts, an arrangement that bears striking resemblance to a key aspect of Sen. Mikulski’s preferred Landsat approach.

The NPOESS fiasco has little relevance to Landsat. To invoke it in this case is alarmist and, more importantly, inappropriate.

Meanwhile, NASA already is well behind schedule in fielding a Landsat replacement due to a failed attempt to privatize the service and an ill-advised scheme to place a Landsat sensor on an NPOESS satellite. Presumably, the agency learned something from the millions of dollars spent studying the commercial Landsat Data Continuity Mission, and has shaped its latest procurement plan accordingly. If there are lingering differences within the agency on this matter, they should be resolved internally, not by Congress.

With Landsat 7’s longevity in question, NASA has no time to lose in fielding a replacement. But because the Senate Appropriations Committee has decided to butt in, the request for proposals for the follow-on satellite likely will be delayed. Or worse: There is a chance that the mission — regarded by some at NASA as a budgetary lien — could be derailed indefinitely.

Congress needs to get out of the way on this one immediately, and let NASA do its job.