The decision by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to cancel the Hyperspectral Environmental Suite of sensors being designed for its next generation of geostationary-orbiting weather satellites is unfortunate, yet perfectly understandable.
It is unfortunate because NOAA is writing off a design investment of some $75 million, not to mention some of the advanced capabilities that defined the Geostationary-orbiting Operational Satellite (GOES) R series as a next-generation system. The agency now plans to rely on a legacy sounder which, in addition to offering little if any qualitative improvement in measurements of atmospheric temperature and humidity, could have compatibility issues with the GOES R platform design.
But the reasoning behind NOAA’s decision is no mystery. The agency has a tradition of erring on the conservative side when it comes to maintaining continuity of weather satellite coverage. This is appropriate, given the potential consequences of not being able to predict with good fidelity the strength and direction of an approaching hurricane.
In addition, NOAA’s experience managing the civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System — whose projected cost exploded when one of its multiple sensors ran into developmental difficulties — clearly is still fresh on the minds of NOAA officials. Having taken the brunt of the blame for that fiasco, NOAA officials certainly can be forgiven for being gun-shy these days about the amount of risk they want to take on the GOES R program.
The lesson to be learned from this episode is that the U.S. government needs a better mechanism for developing promising yet immature technologies to the point that they are ready for use on operational systems. The recent history of space acquisition is littered with examples of programs that unraveled because managers bet prematurely on unproven technologies.
The U.S. Air Force appears to have taken these lessons to heart with the incremental, or block, development approach championed by U.S. Air Force Undersecretary Ronald Sega. But the Air Force still has to follow through by ensuring that, even as it focuses on fielding operational systems incorporating relatively mature technologies, it continues to aggressively fund development of more futuristic technologies so that the nation’s space-based capabilities continue to improve.
Unlike the Air Force, which can tap its own laboratories as well as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to retire the risks inherent in new technology, NOAA does not have an internal research and development capability. Instead it must rely on NASA and the Defense Department to perform this critical function.
Unfortunately, there appears to be no formal system for ensuring that NOAA’s sister agencies take its technology priorities into account as they set their research agendas. Given the tremendous budgetary pressures faced today by NASA and the Defense Department, it seems unlikely that they will do so voluntarily.
It would be impractical to set up a research and development shop at NOAA, and given the fact that these capabilities already reside within NASA and the Pentagon, it would be wasteful as well.
The White House and Congress should take the initiative here and create a process by which NOAA’s sister agencies take responsibility for ensuring that the United States continues to field the most capable weather satellites that technology will allow.