WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says it is ready and willing take lead responsibility for a next-generation polar-orbiting weather satellite program that is way over budget, years behind schedule and, according to two new reports, hamstrung by a dysfunctional management structure.

“For NOAA, we believe that we have the broadest mission requirements, and this mission is critically important to us,” said Mary Glackin, NOAA deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere. “NOAA will be prepared to take leadership of the program.”

offer, which stands to eliminate U.S. Air Force’s management role in the civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program, was made during a June 17 hearing of the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight subcommittee.

Two reports released at the hearing warned that NPOESS faces almost certain failure without a management overhaul and near-term infusion of cash. Both the U.S. Government Accountability Office and an independent review panel led by former Martin Marietta chief A. Thomas Young are recommending dissolving the NPOESS tri-agency management structure and putting one agency – namely NOAA – in charge. Currently the NPOESS program is led by NOAA and the Air Force, with NASA as a junior partner.

NPOESS is likely to cost at least $1 billion more than the current $14 billion estimate, both reports found. NPOESS originally was expected to cost roughly $7 billion.

Unless the
United States
changes course on NPOESS, Young said, the nation runs the risk of having current weather and climate satellites go dark years before replacements are ready to launch. “The current NPOESS program has an extraordinary low probability of success,” he said.

Originally planned for launch in 2009, the first NPOESS satellite is now scheduled to fly in 2014, with the second launching two years later. A precursor satellite called the NPOESS Preparatory Project, now scheduled for launch in January 2011, originally was supposed to serve as a test platform for the primary NPOESS sensors while also gathering climate data. But the NPOESS delays could force that NASA-funded satellite into an operational forecasting role.

Young’s panel delivered four options for overhauling the NPOESS management structure, where differing priorities among the agencies have hampered decision making. The panel’s favored option is scrapping the tri-agency structure and handing the program over to NOAA, with acquisition managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. U.S. civilian weather satellites are procured under a similar arrangement.

The other options are: sticking with the current management structure and making programmatic and budgetary changes to ensure success; handing the program management to the Air Force Space and
; and closing out the program after the first two satellites and reverting to separate civil and military weather satellite systems.

“The White House has to designate a decision maker that must listen to all of the inputs and decide what is affordable and what is best for the country,” Young said.

Under the NOAA-led management structure, NOAA and NASA would be responsible for providing NPOESS data to all users, including the Defense Department, which has long operated its own fleet of polar-orbiting weather satellites, the Young report said. NOAA and NASA would need to work closely with the Defense Department to ensure future military needs are satisfied.

“The organization assigned management responsibility must have total acquisition responsibility including control and responsibility for all supporting resources and functions such as people, budget and contracting,” the report said.

The Defense Department, which splits NPOESS funding responsibility with NOAA, had no representatives at the hearing. Air Force spokesman Andrew Bourland was unable to provide by press time comment on the proposed management change.

Young’s panel also recommended accelerating acquisition of the third and fourth satellites in the series, which have yet to be approved, to launch closer to the first two satellites. The NPOESS program is “hardware poor,” and just a single launch failure could result in a capability gap measured in years, Young said.

The panel also recommended sticking with NPOESS prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Los Angeles as well as with Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif., an instrument subcontractor. Raytheon is building the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, whose development difficulties have taken much of the blame for NPOESS’s cost growth and schedule slips.

David Powner, director of information technology and management issues at the Government Accountability Office, said the current NPOESS decision making body, the tri-agency executive committee, has been ineffective. The Defense Department is supposed to be represented at the committee’s quarterly meetings by the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, but John J. Young, who held that post until recently, did not attend a single meeting and sometimes overturned decisions made at the meetings, Powner said.

and Tom Young said it is important that the Pentagon’s new acquisition chief, Ashton Carter, attend the next NPOESS executive committee meeting scheduled for June 26, during which decisions on the scope of the program should be made. The committee will review five new cost estimates for the program, Glackin said during the hearing. She declined to provide a range for those estimates.

Overall, NPOESS has made progress over the past year, but instrument troubles continue to jeopardize the program, the Government Accountability Office report said. Raytheon is testing the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite that will fly on the NPOESS Preparatory Project, but while the company’s plans show a delivery date in September, the government estimates it will take at least three months longer. The office also identified a high level of risk for the Cross-track Infrared Sounder, built by ITT Space Systems of Rochester, N.Y., that will fly on the precursor satellite. The instrument was hampered by faulty components during final testing and its delivery has been delayed until July, the report said.