A contract dispute in 2008 over which company would build the next generation of U.S. geostationary orbiting weather satellites delayed progress on the program and could leave the nation without a backup weather capability for one year, according to an Oct. 1 report by a government watchdog agency.

NASA in 2008 awarded Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems a contract to build the first two Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series spacecraft. Losing bidder Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., twice filed protests of the award and twice was rebuffed, holding up the start of spacecraft development until August 2009.

This delay will translate into a six-month schedule slip, from April to October 2015, for the first GOES-R satellite, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites — Improvements Needed in Continuity Planning and Involvement of Key Users.”

The United States operates two geostationary weather satellites overlooking both coasts and has a policy of keeping a backup satellite on orbit in case one of the satellites fails. The last current-generation GOES satellite launched earlier this year and is expected to operate until early 2015. GOES-R will not enter service until early 2016, leaving the nation with a one-year period during which it will not have an on-orbit spare, the GAO found.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which operates the weather satellites, has developed a contingency plan in which it would move one of the craft to cover the middle of the country and rely on weather data from international partners if a satellite fails on orbit. However, the agency has not fully developed an implementation plan for this scenario, the GAO said.