The team developing the U.S. government’s next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites has made significant progress in reducing risk on the troubled effort over the past year, but the program’s price tag is likely to rise again next month as the government revamps the contract,
according to a government auditor.
David Powner, director of information technology management issues for the Government Accountability Office, did not offer specific figures regarding the additional cost growth during testimony before the House Science and Technology’s energy and environment subcommittee June 7.
The renegotiation of Northrop Grumman Space Technology’s contract on the National Polar-orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program follows the June 2006 restructuring of the program due to technical difficulty that led to cost growth that threatened to cancel the effort.
The NPOESS satellites are expected to replace two separate polar-orbiting weather satellite constellations operated today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Air Force. The two agencies had expected to spend a total of $6.8 billion to buy six satellites when the contract was awarded to Northrop Grumman in 2002, but
technical difficulty, primarily with the satellite’s sensors, forced a restructuring of the effort that eliminated two satellites and several climate monitoring instruments from the plan.
The restructured effort was expected to cost $11.5 billion as of last June, not including about $1 billion for satellite operations and support over the life of the program, Powner said.
the government and industry team working on NPOESS had made significant improvement in their oversight on the effort over the past year, but that he has seen continued difficulty with the satellites that could drive
up the cost further after the government completes the renegotiation of Northrop Grumman’s contract in July. The costs could continue to grow due to the complexity of the program, as well as challenges with the management of the effort, he said.
U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Susan Mashiko, who currently serves as program executive officer for the NPOESS effort
said that she believes the program is currently on track to meet the $12.5 billion cost estimate.
Mashiko, however, will leave her current job shortly to take over as commander of the military satellite communications systems wing.
Both Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas), chairman of the energy and environment panel, and Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), the panel’s ranking member, expressed concern that the Air Force was rotating Mashiko out of her position too soon, and said that a change in leadership on the program could increase the risk of further problems with the NPOESS effort.
she is confident in the current NPOESS program office staff’s ability to keep the program on track, but noted that after assuming her new job she will have the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time
helping her still-to-be-named replacement
get up to speed.
said the Department of Commerce is working on finding her replacement. That official will be a civilian from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to John Leslie, a spokesman for the agency.
In addition to concern about Mashiko’s imminent departure, Powner said that a staffing shortage in the government program office adds further risk to the program. The program office has run into past problems due to a shortage of skilled budget analysts and systems engineers, and could
continue to struggle until those positions are filled, Powner
Members of the subcommittee also expressed concern that the government is not moving fast enough to deal with the impact of the removal of several climate research sensors from the NPOESS satellites as part of the restructuring last year. Those sensors were removed as part of an effort to focus on the core operational weather forecasting mission of the satellites.
“I think that without decisive action and leadership, we will lose continuity in the multi-decadal data sets that are central to our understanding of global warming,” Lampson said. “In fact, some breaches in data collection may be unavoidable at this point.”
John Marburger, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that the NPOESS satellites make up a relatively small percentage of the U.S. climate monitoring satellites on orbit, and
that the government could find opportunities to host those sensors on other satellites, as well as their own free-flying platforms.