The long-awaited restructuring plan for the next generation of U.S. polar orbiting weather satellites curtails the number of platforms to be purchased, eliminates several instruments and places renewed reliance on a European contribution, according to U.S. government officials and documents.

The revamped National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) will be less capable but still far more expensive than originally planned. Senior officials managing the troubled tri-agency civil-military program told the House Science Committee in a June 8 hearing that they had to make sacrifices to avoid a gap in weather forecasting coverage.

While less capable than initially envisioned, the NPOESS system will still provide a significant increase in weather forecasting capability over separate systems traditionally operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force today, according to NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral. NOAA and the Air Force are splitting the funding for NPOESS, with NASA contributing expertise as a junior partner in the program, whose projected cost soared to nearly $14 billion after a contractor ran into problems developing one of the main instruments.

When the NPOESS prime contract was awarded to Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., in 2002, the program was expected to cost $6.8 billion, including the instruments that were being developed under separate contracts. The prime contract covered six satellites — two firm and four options.

The government now plans to spend $11.1 billion for four NPOESS satellites, not including launches, Lautenbacher said at the hearing. With launches, the price tag is $11.5 billion, he said.

The NPOESS operating plan also has changed. Plans to incorporate a European satellite into the system have gone back and forth over the years, but when the NPOESS prime contract was awarded, U.S. government officials envisioned a constellation consisting of four satellites: two full-sized NPOESS craft; a scaled-down version; and a European Metop spacecraft. Under the restructured plan, the scaled-down NPOESS satellite — which was dubbed NPOESS-lite and was supposed fly in the same orbit as the Metop satellite — has been eliminated.

Pentagon officials had been reluctant to rely on the European satellite to cover the so-called mid-morning orbit, but Europe’s progress toward the launch of the first Metop satellite, scheduled for this summer, has boosted their confidence, Air Force Undersecretary Ronald Sega told reporters after the hearing. The third Metop satellite will feature U.S. instruments and will serve as the European contribution to the initial NPOESS constellation.

The launch of the first NPOESS satellite, meanwhile, is now scheduled for in 2013 — five years later than envisioned when the program began. Launches of the remaining legacy NOAA and Air Force weather satellites are being re-phased to minimize the possibility of gaps in weather coverage before NPOESS comes on line, Lautenbacher said.

Additionally, a NASA-funded demonstration mission called the NPOESS Preparatory Project, which was expected at one point to launch in October 2006, has been delayed until 2009 . That spacecraft will feature some key NPOESS instruments and could provide some operational weather monitoring capability, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said at the hearing.

NPOESS was restructured after a program review that was triggered by an increase of more than 25 percent over its previous price tag of $8.4 billion . The cost rose to that level in 2003, largely because the Air Force elected to stretch out the launch schedule of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program constellation .

By December, the projected NPOESS price tag hit $13.8 billion, not including launch costs, due primarily to development problems with one of its main instruments: the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer. That sensor is being built by Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif.

Kenneth Krieg, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told Congress in a June 5 letter that he planned to keep close tabs on the effort and would consider replacing Northrop Grumman as the overall system integrator if the program’s troubles continue.

That role potentially could be handled by the government, Sega said at the hearing, the third held by the House Science Committee on NPOESS since November, and the second in less than a month. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the committee, said the panel would continue to hold hearings on the program’s progress.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee indicated that they could not be fully confident that NPOESS is on the right track until they start to see better results from the program. Members also expressed bipartisan frustration that Krieg had yet to release all documents associated with the NPOESS program review prior to the hearing.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said Krieg was invited to testify at the hearing, but could not appear due to travel plans.

“Apparently, there are no phones where he is at the moment so the Department of Defense could not get approval to provide the committee with the documents we need,” Gordon said. “At this point, I have only a bare-bones, heavily censored description of the redesigned polar satellite program. That is simply not sufficient.”

The restructuring also will affect the management of the NPOESS program, which was heavily criticized in a recent report by the Commerce Department’s inspector general. NOAA is a division of the Commerce Department.

One of those criticisms was the infrequency of meetings by the NPOESS executive committee, which is made up of the NOAA and NASA administrators and the Air Force undersecretary. The executive committee will now hold quarterly meetings that will feature briefings from both government and industry program officials.

The inspector general’s report also highlighted the need for better independent oversight of the NPOESS effort. The report said the NPOESS program manager repeatedly approved incentive fee payments to Northrop Grumman in spite of the cost growth and schedule delays, and should not have had such authority because award fees are often a metric for judging how well a program is being run.

As part of the restructuring, Air Force Brig. Gen. (select) Susan Mashiko has been designated the NPOESS program executive officer with a mandate to order independent reviews of the program and approve award fees, Sega said. A White House source said Mashiko also might be given authority to oversee the existing Air Force and NOAA polar-orbiting weather satellite programs .

Lautenbacher noted that while Northrop Grumman had received 84 percent of its NPOESS award fees in the past, the company received nothing in the most recent fee period.

Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) asked Lautenbacher whether part of the NPOESS cost could be recouped from commercial meteorological organizations that will use the data, like the Weather Channel. Lautenbacher replied that data from U.S. weather satellites is provided free of charge, but saves money and lives by enabling better storm preparation.

Gutknecht, along with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) were clearly irritated by that answer , with both suggesting that the billions of dollars in NPOESS cost overruns could save lives if spent on other purposes like dikes to protect the Gulf Coast from hurricanes.

Lawmakers also expressed disappointment that several instruments have been dropped from NPOESS , although the witnesses said that they have plans to mitigate the loss and ensure data continuity in most cases.

The largest of the instruments to be canceled is the Conical Microwave Imager Sounder, which was being built by Boeing Co. of Chicago and was intended to monitor atmospheric temperature and humidity. The NPOESS program office intends to hold a competition to develop a less-complicated replacement that will be flown beginning with the second NPOESS satellite.

Lautenbacher had warned at the previous NPOESS hearing May 11 that that instrument could be in for future trouble. Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, said the instrument had “a lot of unknowns in its future,” and that program officials were having difficulty containing its size.

The instrument features a 2.2-meter revolving antenna and was to be located aboard NPOESS satellites close to Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer. In a June 6 interview at the Pentagon, Payton said that with additional size growth, the Conical Microwave Imager Sounder might have disrupted operations of the other sensor .

Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), ranking member on the House Science subcommittee on environment, technology and standards, said he was informed by Mashiko that the replacement instrument could be acquired for the difference between the $163 million already spent to date on the Conical Microwave Imager Sounder and the original total cost estimate of $465 million for the sensor.

However, Wu indicated that he was doubtful that this plan could be achieved.

Current plans call for retaining the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer, despite its problems and the resulting disruptions to the NPOESS program. However, Lautenbacher said after the hearing that if the instrument runs into further trouble, it could be replaced by the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer, which is flown aboard NOAA’s current polar-orbiting fleet.

Michael Fabey contributed to this story. Comments: