The National Polar Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is our nation’s next-generation polar environmental satellite system. Over the past several years, we have made progress in merging the independent polar-orbiting environmental satellite systems of the
departments of Defense and Commerce into a single, integrated operational system – NPOESS. Yet, many are concerned the current global financial crisis and the uncertainty inherent with a new administration may result in delay of this vital program.

No one should have thought designing, building and launching the most technically advanced operational polar-orbiting environmental satellite system would be easy. NPOESS has experienced bumps in the road, including schedule delays, cost growth and the deletion of sensors to contain costs.

There should be no question as to the need for a polar-orbiting environmental satellite system. The planned NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) will bridge the gap in land, ocean and atmospheric science measurements between NPOESS, which is expected to launch its first satellite (C-1) around 2013, and NASA’s Earth Observing System research satellites that are operating beyond their planned lifetimes. Continuity of such data is critical if we are to have the baseline knowledge necessary to gauge the impact of future climate change policies.

Given what we now know about climate change and its potential impact on our nation and the world, the value of NPOESS is greater today than when the program began in 1994. The higher spatial, spectral and temporal resolution of Earth observations from NPOESS will enable state-of-the-art weather and climate models to produce improved weather and climate forecasts on local, regional and global scales. These forecasts should allow better response to severe weather conditions (e.g., tornadoes, floods and hurricanes), thus reducing their economic impact and the potential for loss of lives.

The money invested in NPOESS is small in comparison to the lives and money that would be lost from future disasters without its critical environmental information. For example, Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,500 people, and the Insurance Information Institute indicates insured losses were more than $43 billion. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates civilian benefits from NPOESS will total $12.6 billion to $16.8 billion. The
military will use NPOESS data to provide war fighters with critical, timely, reliable and accurate environmental information needed to support military operations.

Many space acquisition programs have presented tough challenges. Yet, in the end, determination and persistence yielded excellent and, in many cases, groundbreaking systems. For example, we stayed the course after scientists discovered a flawed mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope shortly after its 1990 launch. A 1993 space shuttle mission to repair the mirror was successful, and since then Hubble images have led to some of the most important scientific discoveries of our time.

As noted earlier, NPOESS has experienced well-publicized technical and management challenges and setbacks. The program has made steady progress since the 2006 restructure and this isn’t the time for delay. Joint Department of Commerce, Department of Defense and NASA management of the program has presented a number of unique challenges. Given the interagency complexion of the user community, joint management of the program is the best way to ensure civilian and military benefits are realized. It also makes sense to have balanced management by the system’s two funding organizations, the departments of Defense and Commerce.

While challenges remain and hard work lies ahead, we should not hinder progress on a satellite system unnecessarily – more than a decade in the making – that is vital to the nation’s quality of life, economic well being and security. Now is the time to continue to work to deliver the nation’s next-generation polar environmental satellite.

Brig. Gen. John “Jack” Kelly (

Air Force retired) was deputy undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere from 2003 to 2007, and previously served as director, National Weather Service and director of
Air Force.