NOAA Budget Request Includes Funds To End NPOESS Contract

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WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman faces possible termination of its multibillion-dollar contract to build a next-generation weather satellite system for the U.S. government, and many of the company’s key responsibilities on the newly revamped program are being handed over to NASA, according to a senior government official.

Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told lawmakers March 17 that the government’s 2011 budget request for civilian weather satellites includes termination fees for Northrop Grumman’s contract, which was awarded in 2002. The program in question, dubbed the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), has been dramatically restructured following years of cost growth and delays, leaving Northrop Grumman’s future role uncertain.

The restructuring, announced in early February with the rollout of U.S. President Barack Obama’s budget request, effectively ended the NPOESS program, which was intended to merge the separate polar-orbiting weather satellites of NOAA and the U.S. Air Force. NOAA and the Air Force will now pursue separate systems, with the civilian program taking ownership of the assets that were developed as part of NPOESS.

As NPOESS prime contractor, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Los Angeles was to build the satellite platforms and also was responsible for overall integration of the system, including the instruments and ground segment. Testifying before the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, Lubchenco said NASA will take over the instrument and ground-segment integration duties for what is now called the Joint Polar Satellite System as part of a transition plan being finalized by NOAA and the U.S. Department of Defense. NOAA’s budget request includes $1.06 billion for the Joint Polar Satellite System in 2011.

“The federal budget includes contingency funding, termination costs for the Northrop Grumman contract, and a cost estimate that is at or close to the 80 percent level,” Lubchenco said. “So this will ensure that lack of funding won’t drive day-to-day decisions, which has been a giant problem with this program.

“What [the Defense Department] decides to do in the out years still has potential for affecting our costs. … Termination liabilities are of particular concern for us. We’re working with [the Defense Department] to minimize those liabilities, and we’re still in the process of negotiations.”

NOAA spokesman John Leslie said March 19 no final decision has been made to cancel Northrop Grumman’s contract.

NOAA had previously announced that it would use a different satellite platform for the Joint Polar Satellite System, with a supplier to be selected at a later date. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., will manage the development of two spacecraft, planned for launch in 2015 and 2017, that will retain all of the instruments that were slated to fly on NPOESS, Lubchenco said.

The Defense Department still has two of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft yet to launch and has not yet decided on its approach for acquiring weather satellite data in the latter part of this decade. The Air Force’s budget request for 2011 includes nearly $352 million for NPOESS.

“Northrop Grumman continues to work with NOAA, NASA and the [Defense Department and Air Force] on the transition activities related to the NPOESS program,” Northrop Grumman spokesman Lon Rains said in an e-mailed statement. “As this transition proceeds, the Northrop Grumman team remains dedicated to fulfilling the contract of record. We continue to believe that the capacity that has been built up by our NPOESS team — the design work, the hardware, an active supply chain and the team itself — will be the fastest and most reliable way to provide civil and military users the capabilities they so critically need.”

Northrop Grumman’s NPOESS contract is with the Air Force.

At the hearing, Lubchenco also defended decisions related to other NOAA satellite programs in its 2011 budget request. NOAA uses GPS radio occultation data for operational weather forecasting that comes from a satellite system built in cooperation with Taiwan. In planning to acquire this type of data after that system ceases operations, NOAA considered purchasing the data commercially. It awarded study contracts last year to GeoOptics of Pasadena, Calif., and Iridium Communications of Bethesda, Md., to perform cost and feasibility studies on providing commercial GPS radio occultation data.

Instead, NOAA chose to request $3.7 million to begin developing a follow-on constellation in cooperation with Taiwan. Lubchenco said agency officials determined that this would be the most economical way to obtain the data in the future, but she did not have a comparative cost analysis at hand. She said NOAA would provide the analysis to the committee.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) questioned NOAA’s decision not to request funds to replace the QuikScat satellite, which stopped working late last year after providing ocean wind data for a decade. While the capability is important for weather forecasting, NOAA has other ways to monitor ocean winds along the coastlines, Lubchenco said. And though the agency no longer has the ability to monitor these conditions in the middle of the oceans, it has other ways of predicting hurricanes, making a QuikScat replacement a less urgent priority than other needs, she said.