U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Susan Mashiko

Program Executive Officer, National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS)


he expression “trust but verify” was ushered into the U.S. lexicon in the 1980s by then-president Ronald Reagan, for whom it served as a guiding philosophy in dealings with the Soviet Union. Susan Mashiko uses it to describe the oversight relationship between the U.S. Air Force and its contractors.

During the so-called acquisition reform era of the 1990s, which many blame for the problems that have afflicted space programs in recent years, the pendulum shifted too far in the direction of “trust,” said Mashiko, who was tapped in January 2006 to wrestle the troubled NPOESS civil-military weather satellite effort under control. One of the things she has done since taking the specially created job of NPOESS program executive officer is strengthen the government management team to bolster the “verify” side of the equation.

Mashiko will readily acknowledge that it’s too early to declare victory on NPOESS, which was restructured last year after its projected cost soared from $6.8 billion to $11.5 billion. But she says the program, which is funded jointly by the Air Force and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with NASA as a junior partner, is now better positioned for success, despite some continuing technical challenges.

It will fall on someone else to see the NPOESS program through, however: Mashiko was slated to leave July 9 to return to Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center

in Los Angeles as head of the military satellite communications wing. Her departure has been lamented by lawmakers with NPOESS oversight responsibility, but job transience is one of the realities in today’s Air Force, which struggles to keep key acquisition positions filled with qualified personnel.

The first operational NPOESS satellite is slated to launch around 2013.

Some of the key program sensors will be demonstrated aboard the NASA-led NPOESS Preparatory Project mission, currently scheduled for a 2009 launch.

, who began her career at Space and Missile Systems Center as chief of anti-satellite payload avionics and who managed the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program during a critical period of its history, discussed NPOESS recently during a telephone interview with Space News


writer Jeremy Singer.

The Air Force has a program executive officer for space whose portfolio includes several programs. Is it unusual to have one responsible for a single program?

It’s not all that unusual with major Air Force programs. The Air Force has a program executive officer for the F-22. While this program is consistent with the dollar value of the satellite efforts at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, it serves such a broad group of users that it is useful to have a senior official who can meet with the congressional defense, science

and intelligence committees that provide oversight, as well as the different agencies who will use the data. There are days when I have used my Pentagon, Commerce Department

and NASA badges.

Climate research bore the brunt of the impact when NPOESS was restructured. Was there any impact to operational weather monitoring and forecasting capabilities?

No. It will be at least as good as the heritage satellites for both civil and military users.

Can the NPOESS satellites still play some sort of role in climate-change monitoring and research?

Yes. NPOESS will still be able to meet about 75 percent of the original climate research goals, and will play an important role in areas like ozone measurements and space environment data. The primary sensors on the satellites have a significant role to play in climate research.

What have you done to strengthen the NPOESS government management team?

We have increased the size of the NPOESS program office by about 32 percent, and added the right types of people who can independently verify what the contractors are doing. We handpicked the new staff to include subject-matter experts from

the Air Force, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

and NASA. In the case of the military, we have often turned to staff from federally funded research and development centers like the Aerospace Corp.

What is your response to concerns raised by the U.S. Government Accountability Office about job vacancies on the NPOESS program staff?

Like any space program, there are some positions open. We’re starting to allay this concern. In some cases, there are open positions because of industrial-base limitations – there aren’t huge numbers of qualified people out there any more. Yes, we could fill those billets, but if you time your hiring poorly and try to fill too many positions at once, you won’t find highly qualified people for each job


What is the best way to deal with the light-filter problems that are causing interference on the NPOESS Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite instrument?

My personal opinion is that a lot of risk can be retired by taking the sensor as currently built and tested and launching it as quickly as possible on the NPOESS Preparatory Project spacecraft to get on orbit experience, take the lessons learned, and roll that into the version of the sensor that is used on the NPOESS satellites. That’s one option that is being examined right now. If we launch the sensor as

is, the primary technical issue would be degraded performance with ocean color measurements.

When do you expect to award a contract to replace

the canceled NPOESS


Microwave Imager/Sounder, which is needed for measurements including

sea-surface temperature, ocean-wind speed and soil moisture?

The program office is evaluating industry’s responses to a request for information, and is putting together the final acquisition strategy. The contract award will likely be sometime this winter.

What’s happening with the

Cross Track Infrared Sounder

for the NPOESS Preparatory Project, which

was damaged during testing?

Following the damage during vibration testing in October 2006, we have gone through the various components to see if they survived the failure. We’ve done some repair and replacement work on things that may have received stress during the test, and have been very conservative even with things that do not show visible damage.


beefed up the instrument’s frame with stiffeners and other strengthening devices, and the NPOESS Preparatory Project is still on track for launch in September 2009.

Are design changes in store for

operational versions

of the Cross Track Infrared Sounder?

We’re looking at either building an instrument frame with additional strengtheners and stiffeners, or redesigning the entire frame for the NPOESS satellites. It’s essentially a belt and suspenders approach. You’ll hear that term a lot on the NPOESS program – it’s been part of the mindset over the past 18 months. We have a Plan A and a Plan B so that there is always a backup plan, and we don’t have to go back to ground zero if there is a problem.

The NPOESS restructuring removed an ocean

altimetry instrument that users say was never a great fit on the weather satellites due to their orbit. Why was this sensor manifested on NPOESS in the first place?

You have to remember what the political climate was like at the point that the NPOESS program began – not political in terms of Democrat or Republican, but in terms of the strategy for the program. NPOESS was a convergence of many things on a single satellite bus with the idea of saving the government money. The Navy recognized that having the altimeter on NPOESS wasn’t optimal, but felt that it was adequate at the time. There were some compromises made, but a feeling that as long as the basic mission requirements were being satisfied, people could get what they needed, not necessarily what they wanted.