BOSTON — T he expected cost of a new generation of geostationary orbiting weather satellites has nearly doubled, and the work appears to be riskier than initially expected, government officials told members of Congress Sept. 29.

Conrad Lautenbacher, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told members of the House Science Committee the new cost estimates for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) R series of weather satellites include adjustments for inflation, greater than expected costs in the development of the satellites and sensors and the addition of program reserves to pay for unexpected problems.

The GOES R series, which is slated to begin launching in 2012, was previously expected to cost $6.2 billion, but is now expected to cost more than $11 billion, Lautenbacher told the Committee during the Sept. 29 hearing.

Greater complexity than expected with the satellite and its sensors accounts for about $1.5 billion of the increase. Revised inflation assumptions have added about $2.6 billion to the price tag, Lautenbacher said. The program reserves account for about $800 million.

In a report released at the hearing, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated the total cost of the program could potentially be as much as $11.4 billion.

NOAA is continuing to look at ways to manage the cost of the program, and might be able to find a way to hold it to between $7 billion and $9 billion, Lautenbacher said. He did not provide details on how that might be accomplished.

NOAA had initially expected to need the GOES R series to begin replacing its current constellation of weather satellites in 2012, but a recent reevaluation of the status of the current constellation indicates that the new satellites will not be needed until 2014, Lautenbacher said.

While surprised at the new cost estimates, members of the House Science Committee and the Government Accountability Office commended NOAA during the hearing for taking steps to avoid the pitfalls that nearly derailed the development of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System earlier this year.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Science Committee, noted that the work on the polar satellite program suffered from inadequate government oversight — from NOAA as well as Congress — a trend he said he hoped that both sides are currently addressing. While Boehlert lauded NOAA for learning lessons from the problems thus far with the polar satellite program, he said he was troubled by the large increase in the GOES R price tag so early in the program.

Lautenbacher said during the hearing that he concurred with recommendations for further actions included in a Government Accountability Office report released at the hearing.

The GOES satellites provide measurement on climate, atmospheric and oceanic conditions over the United States and Hawaii. NOAA currently operates two GOES satellites, positioned over the east and west coast.

The GOES R series is expected to provide improvements including a better ability to track and forecast severe storms. Teams led by Lockheed Martin Corp. Boeing Co., and Northrop Grumman Corp. are still competing for the prime contract to build the new satellites, which is expected to be awarded in the summer of 2008.

“We expect to see a realistic cost estimate for this program before a system contract is awarded,” Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, told Lautenbacher during the hearing. “We expect a realistic assessment of the technical challenges associated with the development of the sensors and adequate reserves to be put aside to deal with the problems that will inevitably arise. Finally, we expect the executive committee overseeing this program to pay attention to its development and to act decisively and expeditiously when problems are identified.”

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which is under development by Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., was nearly canceled earlier this year after its expected price tag rose from $7.4 billion to more than $11 billion.

Steps taken thus far to head off problems before they start include the cancellation of the Hyperspectral Environment Suite, which would have been too difficult to complete by the time the GOES R satellites are needed to replace the current satellites by 2014, Lautenbacher said. That sensor would have included an advanced sounder used to profile atmospheric temperature and moisture content for weather forecasting, and a coastal water imager used for monitoring water quality and coastal hazards.

The Government Accountability Office recommended NOAA take three actions to avoid problems on GOES-R :

  • Establish a process for objectively evaluating and reconciling government and independent cost estimates for the program once its scope is finalized;
  • Conduct a comprehensive review of the Advanced Baseline Imager, the main instrument on the satellites, before it enters production; and
  • Seek an independent review for the amount of people and resources needed to track and oversee the contractor’s performance on the program.

Lautenbacher concurred with all three recommendations.

He noted that NOAA is already adding three people to monitor contractor performance on GOES R, and will make further adjustments as necessary based on recommendations from independent reviewers, he said.

One lesson from the polar program NOAA may not have learned involves the award of instrument contracts, according to Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Science environment, technology and standards subcommittee. The government chose sensor subcontractors on the polar satellite program prior to awarding the prime contract to Northrop Grumman, which may have led to problems with the integration of the instruments onto the satellite platform, Wu said.

The contract for the most complex instrument on the GOES R satellite — the Advanced Baseline Imager — was awarded to ITT Industries in 2004. Lautenbacher noted that ITT has already run into problems with the development of the instrument, but said NOAA has a firm understanding of the difficulty and that the contractor has a plan for dealing with the issues.

Wu also questioned NOAA’s ability to manage the contract. “I am deeply worried about this because you are going to do this all on your own… You are asking us to trust you, but I, for one, have my concerns,” Wu said.