Continuing problems with the next-generation U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellite system serve as another reminder of the folly of trying to do too much with a single satellite platform. The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is slated to carry a full array of technically challenging instruments, and development problems with just one of them has caused the program’s cost to soar.

As originally conceived in the 1990s, NPOESS was supposed to save money by merging separate polar-orbiting weather satellite systems traditionally operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force. In reality, NPOESS has been anything but a model of government efficiency; the program has incurred delays and massive cost growth leading to a restructuring in 2006 that stripped the system of many of its capabilities. And yet the program’s costs continue to rise.

The Visible-Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), designed to collect a multitude of measurements of the atmosphere, clouds, land and sea, has taken the brunt of the blame for the NPOESS problems. This is a textbook example of a fundamental problem with complex satellites carrying multiple advanced instruments: When the inevitable technical difficulties arise with one sensor, the whole program gets delayed even as it continues to burn through its annual budget apace.

Complicating the matter for NPOESS has been the program’s tri-agency management structure – with the Air Force and NOAA in the lead and NASA as a junior partner – whose fuzzy lines of authority allowed the VIIRS difficulties to fester until it was too late to fix them at a reasonable cost. But this is merely symptomatic of the larger problem with NPOESS: trying to be all things to all people.

The NPOESS experience further bolsters an already strong case for moving away from large, highly complex satellite platforms in favor of smaller ones carrying fewer instruments. In that regard it was encouraging to hear recent congressional testimony by Josh Hartman, director of the Pentagon’s Space and Intelligence Capabilities Office, who called reliance on large, one-size-fits-all satellite platforms an outdated model for space operations.

Instead, Mr. Hartman argued, government agencies should pursue constellations of more but less-complex satellites, perhaps featuring generic platforms whose distinguishing characteristics are the instruments they carry. Such constellations are less vulnerable to a single technical failure, harder to target by adversaries and allow for low-risk insertion of new technologies as they become available.

He’s right on all counts; the question is whether the higher-ups in the
national security space community also get it. There are some positive signals. There is evidence, for example, that the Operationally Responsive Space concept, which almost by definition embraces the use of relatively simple, low-risk platforms, has gained traction with the Pentagon brass. Another positive development was the cancellation of the massive Transformational Satellite communications system, although that decision likely was driven more by hard budget considerations than any change in space procurement philosophy.

A big question mark is the imaging satellite system recently approved by Dennis Blair,
director of national intelligence, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Although the details of this system are classified, there are some indications that Mssrs. Blair and Gates have opted for the type of highly sophisticated, multicapability platform that tends to encounter the same types of troubles that continue to afflict NPOESS. Congress should keep a close eye on this program and the extent to which it seeks to push the state of the art in sensor technology.

In the unclassified realm, the last of the major contracts for satellite fleet recapitalization have been awarded, and the Pentagon seems likely to rely for the foreseeable future on block upgrades to systems either in development or in the early phases of deployment. This means programs to develop new satellite capabilities over the next few years likely will feature the types of systems Mr. Hartman says the Pentagon should be focusing on. This should be a great opportunity to give a truly new way of doing business a trial run.