Editorial: Put NASA in Charge

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It’s been more than five months since an independent panel warned that the U.S. government’s effort to develop a new generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites is doomed to fail barring a change in the program’s management structure. Thankfully, the White House finally appears poised to take corrective action.

The civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is well behind schedule and over budget, a situation that unfortunately is more the norm than the exception for complex government space programs. What sets NPOESS apart is the fact that it is jointly funded and managed by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force, with NASA as a junior partner. The result has been decision paralysis: Problems that might have been contained had they been addressed quickly were allowed to fester, ultimately making them that much more expensive to fix while slowing work on the entire program.

A 2006 report by the U.S. Commerce Department’s inspector general alluded to the issue in pointing out that development problems with a key NPOESS sensor were well-known by the program’s management but went unaddressed until they had spiraled out of control. The government’s response was to create an NPOESS program executive position, but a 2009 report by an independent panel concluded that the new arrangement was still ineffective. The panel, led by former Martin Marietta Chief Executive A. Thomas Young, issued an unambiguous vote of no confidence in the existing structure and recommended a more radical change: put a single agency, preferably NOAA, in charge. Continued inaction, Mr. Young warned, likely would result in program failure.

 The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy seems to have gotten the message. In a July 28 memo to senior officials with the three agencies involved in NPOESS, presidential science adviser John Holdren said key decisions on program management will be made by Sept. 26, in time to be taken into account in preparing the White House’s 2011 budget request. While Mr. Holdren was not specific about the changes that might be in store, he noted that the relevant officials with the Air Force, NOAA and NASA agree that NPOESS management should be handed off to one of the two agencies that routinely develop satellites: NASA and the Air Force.

NASA is the better of the two choices. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which develops, buys and operates the lion’s share of agency’s Earth science satellites, is flush with the institutional expertise in the types of sensors NPOESS will carry. Goddard for years has procured operational weather satellites on behalf of NOAA using NOAA funding; there’s no reason it could not perform this same function for a program funded jointly by NOAA and the Air Force.

Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center has a long history of buying weather satellites as well but suffers from chronic staffing issues and already has a large number of challenging programs on its plate, including the next-generation GPS 3 navigation constellation. The Air Force, moreover, does not share NOAA’s sense of urgency for getting NPOESS satellites in orbit. NOAA launched the last of its legacy polar-orbiting satellites this year; the Air Force still has three legacy weather satellites awaiting launch.

The Air Force might balk at having NASA run NPOESS, which would be understandable given how much the service has invested in the program. But any concern that the military’s interests wouldn’t be adequately represented might be addressed by installing a senior Air Force officer at Goddard as second in command on the program.

If assigned NPOESS management, NASA would have to treat its role strictly as a service to NOAA and the Air Force. That means sticking to the operational requirements for the satellites, as tempting as it might be to tweak the platforms to maximize their scientific potential. NPOESS has fallen too far behind schedule; the focus should be on avoiding a gap in U.S. weather coverage.