SAN FRANCISCO — Although constrained budgets may spur U.S. federal agencies to establish collaborative space missions, these joint ventures are inherently more complex and result in higher overall costs than independent projects, according to a report released Nov. 23 by the National Research Council (NRC).

The report’s primary recommendation is that agencies avoid collaborative Earth-observing or space science missions, said Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-chairman of the NRC committee that drafted the report, “Assessment of Impediments to Interagency Collaboration on Space and Earth Science Missions.”

If government agencies have a compelling reason to collaborate on a specific mission in spite of that warning, agency officials should take great pains to clearly define the scope of the project as well as the roles and responsibilities of each team member, according to the report.

Even when there is a compelling reason for agencies to work together — for example, if one agency has unique capabilities that are deemed essential to a mission’s success — the NRC report recommends ways to structure that cooperation without sharing overall responsibility for the project. One agency could build a scientific instrument for inclusion on a spacecraft built by another agency, for instance, or two agencies might opt to share data produced by a mission instead of jointly managing the mission, Baker said.

“Experience has shown that collaborative projects almost invariably lead to increased costs,” the NRC report said. “When additional participants join a project, the basic costs remain, but the costs of duplicating management systems and of managing interactions must be added.”

As a result, collaborative efforts that involve more than one U.S. government agency in a domestic space program result in higher overall costs for the U.S. government, according to the report. While international cooperative ventures also are more costly than independent programs, those projects can save money for the U.S. government because international partners are absorbing some of the mission’s expense, the report said.

Although international cooperative projects share many of the same challenges as domestic interagency programs, multinational efforts traditionally benefit from a higher degree of planning at the outset, Baker said. That extensive planning is an important ingredient for any successful interagency partnership, according to the report.

“In the event of a decision to proceed with collaboration, conscious steps to mitigate risk are required at every stage of development — from identification of the potential partner agencies and assignment of their respective roles; through project definition, management, and acquisition; to working with the administration and Congress to ensure mission success,” the report added. 

To reach its conclusions, the NRC committee studied a broad range of domestic and international collaborative efforts, including the Advanced Composition Explorer spacecraft, a NASA satellite which provides space weather data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), an ambitious mission that was managed jointly by NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Defense Department to establish a spacecraft constellation capable of replacing both the U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellite Program and NOAA’s Polar Operational Environmental Satellites. The NPOESS program, which was plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays, was canceled by U.S. President Barack Obama in February and replaced by two distinct efforts to develop weather satellites to address civil and military needs.

NPOESS is the “poster child” for the problem of interagency collaboration, Baker said. “We should have put a picture of NPOESS on the cover of this report.”

In its report, the NRC panel pointed out some of the inherent challenges in NASA-NOAA partnerships. Although the two agencies have complementary missions, NASA’s program is focused on research and development of space instruments, while NOAA has a wide range of operational and regulatory responsibilities. The two agencies work well together in cases where NOAA can use NASA research data and models to fulfill its responsibilities.

“Yet the issue of the technology transfer from research to operations is still a thorny one that bears heavily on interagency collaboration,” according to the report. “For example, when a NASA-funded research satellite that has proved to provide valuable data for operational applications reaches its end of life, NASA has no research requirement (and consequently no funding) to continue collecting the same type of data, even though a need for this valuable data still exists.”

That was the case when NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer proved useful in detecting fires, when the space agency’s Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor proved adept at spotting harmful algal bloom, and when NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission offered useful data on precipitation, the NRC report said. “Problems in executing the transition to operations, in extending the lifetime of Earth-observing missions, and in sustaining measurements over long time periods in support of climate research are all examples of a misalignment between NASA and NOAA roles and responsibilities and their budgets,” the report added.

In spite of that inherent conflict, several NASA-NOAA collaborations have worked well. The report points to the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites as a successful project in which NOAA establishes requirements, provides funding and distributes satellite data, while NASA oversees procurement, design, development and launch of the spacecraft.

The report also cites the Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM), an effort to measure sea-surface height, as a successful collaborative project that requires a higher level of coordination among agencies. For OSTM, the French space agency, CNES, built the spacecraft and instruments were provided by NASA and CNES. In October 2008, after CNES and NASA confirmed the satellite and ground system were functioning properly, operations were turned over to NOAA and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites. In spite of that high level of coordination, the effort succeeded in part because NASA and NOAA had clearly defined roles, according to the report.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...