It’s been well known for several years now that the U.S. civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) has major problems, but two recent reports have cast new light on the depth and systemic nature of the troubles. The reports, released June 17 during a congressional hearing on NPOESS, paint a portrait of a program all but doomed to failure by a dysfunctional management structure incapable of making important programmatic decisions.

This is a program that already has been restructured once, yet its cost continues to soar. NPOESS is now expected to cost $15 billion, more than double the original price tag and some $1 billion above recent projections. The cost growth has been blamed largely on development problems with a primary sensor, which have held up work on the entire program even as cash continues to flow to an army of contractors marching in half step. But a 2006 report by the U.S. Commerce Department’s inspector general said NPOESS managers were also to blame for failing to take corrective action before it was too late.

Management changes instituted since then have not righted the program, according to the two new reports, one prepared by an independent panel and the other by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The independent panel, led by former Martin Marietta chief A. Thomas Young, recommended scrapping the tri-agency NPOESS management structure in which the U.S. Defense Department and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) share decision-making responsibility, with NASA playing a secondary advisory role. The report said NOAA should be handed primary responsibility, with NASA acting as the acquisition agent – an arrangement that has worked on U.S. civilian weather satellite programs for years.

In hearing testimony, David Powner, director of information technology and management issues at the Government Accountability Office, said the senior NPOESS decision-making authority, the Executive Committee, is ineffective in part due to its tri-agency makeup, which complicates the resolution of problems. He also said the Defense Department has not adequately represented itself at Executive Committee meetings.

NOAA, meanwhile, says it is ready to take charge of NPOESS. During the hearing, Mary Glackin, NOAA deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere, called the mission “critically important” to her agency, which she said has the “broadest requirements” for weather forecasting and climate data.

The Defense Department, for its part, did not send a witness to testify even though it was extended an invitation, according to the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight subcommittee, which held the hearing. This is puzzling given that the Pentagon has already invested a large sum of money in NPOESS and plans to spend another $400 million next year. The implication, however, is obvious: NPOESS is not a huge priority for the Pentagon.

Whether or not that was the Pentagon’s intended message, NOAA clearly has more at stake here. Weather forecasting and climate monitoring are core missions for NOAA, whose current-generation polar-orbiting weather satellites will reach the end of their service lives well before the U.S. Air Force’s legacy systems. NOAA’s last such satellite was launched this year, while the Air Force still has three Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellites yet to be launched. Mr. Young warned during the hearing that the United States is facing a potential gap in its ability to collect critical weather and climate data.

This alone is reason enough to hand NOAA the keys to the NPOESS program. Such a decision might not sit well with the Pentagon, particularly given the likelihood that it would have to continue funding the program. Some observers have suggested that the Defense Department would just as soon wash its hands of NPOESS, which is something the White House cannot allow: U.S. taxpayers should not be forced to pay for the next-generation system the Pentagon eventually will need in addition to NPOESS. Mechanisms will be needed, therefore, to ensure that the Defense Department’s interests are represented and addressed under a NOAA-led NPOESS program.

Whatever course of action the White House chooses – Mr. Young’s panel put forth other alternatives that it said were less preferable than putting NOAA in charge – it needs to act decisively and swiftly. Each day without action on NPOESS is another day under a management structure that has proven itself a failure.