WASHINGTON — The U.S. Congress is on the verge of sending the White House an omnibus spending bill that provides no additional funding for the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and eliminates a cost-sharing agreement between the Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the troubled weather satellite program.
The NPOESS provisions are included in the 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act (HR 3288) that passed the House of Representatives Dec. 10 and as of press time was awaiting a vote in the Senate. The $447 billion spending measure combines six separate bills, including a Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations act that funds NOAA for 2010.
Overall, HR 3288 includes slightly more than the $1.43 billion the White House requested for NOAA’s satellite shop — the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service — and reduces the agency’s $737 million request for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-series by $69.5 million, citing a delay in awarding contracts for the ground system.
While the White House recently added $87 million to NOAA’s proposed 2011 budget to help get NPOESS back on track, the House and Senate negotiators who met Dec. 8 to hammer out the final version of HR 3288 called for NPOESS managerial changes but provided no additional funding for the program for 2010 beyond the $382.2 million the White House requested this spring.
When President Barack Obama submits his 2011 budget request to Congress in February, NOAA’s portion is expected to include $515 million for NPOESS, internal budget documents obtained by Space News show.
While that traditionally would mean that the Air Force also intends to request $515 million for the civil-military weather satellite program, HR 3288 eliminates the long-standing requirement that the Air Force and NOAA each fund NPOESS at the same amount each year. The cost-sharing arrangement never included NASA, which is a junior partner in the program.
In the conference report accompanying HR 3288, lawmakers said removing the 50-50 cost-sharing requirement would “allow for more creative funding decisions to avert the critical climate and weather gaps that are sure to occur if a management solution is not identified soon.”
The bill also requires NOAA to have the Defense Department’s Cost Analysis and Improvement Group complete a new and more conservative cost estimate for NPOESS by Jan. 4, 2010.
The NPOESS program has encountered massive cost growth and schedule slips in recent years, and an independent review panel concluded in the spring that the program is hobbled by an ineffective management structure and needs a near-term infusion of cash to succeed. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy assembled a task force in the summer to make changes to get the program back on track.
Once planned for launch in 2009, the first NPOESS satellite, being built by Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Los Angeles, is now scheduled to fly in 2014. A precursor satellite dubbed the NPOESS Preparatory Project, now scheduled for launch in 2011, was supposed to launch in 2006 and serve as a test bed for the primary NPOESS sensors, but will now be thrust into an operational role because of the delays. The current life-cycle cost of NPOESS is $14 billion.
Lawmakers wrote in the HR 3288 conference report that they are concerned that the NPOESS management structure, potential growth in life-cycle cost to more than $15 billion and repeated schedule delays create an unacceptably high risk for gaps in weather and climate data collection.
“Recognizing that this satellite program is critical to forecasting the Nation’s weather, the conferees’ recommendation fully funds the NPOESS budget request for 2010 based on current formation,” the conference report states. “However, the budget request does not reflect the true need and the program’s long-term projections for success remain in doubt. In fact, this experiment in combining disparate elements has been a horrendous and costly failure.”
Sherburne Abbott, the White House official leading the NPOESS task force, told reporters in mid-November that decisions on the program were imminent.
In the conference report, lawmakers expressed frustration with the White House’s inability to make decisions on the program so far.
“Nothing short of an immediate and out-of-the-box solution will do,” the report says. “The program needs a cooperative solution that will take advantage of the strengths of the three agencies involved, sustain the integrated operations of various satellites, and should not be based on financial projections that have been proven to be consistently and abysmally unreliable.”