A U.S. senator who oversees the budget for a new weather satellite program warned government officials not to seek new money from Congress to cover cost overruns.
Speaking during a March 30 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation disaster prevention and prediction subcommittee, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the subcommittee’s chairman, threatened unspecified retaliation if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) requests additional money to deal with the problems it has on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).
“I came to Washington to fight excessive spending while ensuring [that] essential services are provided,” DeMint said. “Weather prediction is a crucial government service, but cost overruns like this one reaffirm conviction that Washington doesn’t have sufficient respect for the federal taxpayer.”
Greg Withee, NOAA’s assistant administrator for satellites and information services, said in an interview following the hearing that his agency is not prepared to address how it will cover the cost overruns on NPOESS until the Pentagon completes a review of the program that could lead to its restructuring or termination.
The cost of the various options under consideration has not yet been determined, Withee said.
The Pentagon began its review of the program after cost growth triggered the threshold included in the Nunn-McCurdy legislation, which was developed by Congress to better facilitate oversight of major defense acquisition efforts.
When programs like NPOESS suffer cost growth of 25 percent or greater, the legislation requires the Pentagon to restructure the efforts, cancel them all together, or justify continuation of the existing plan.
The U.S. Air Force and NOAA share funding for NPOESS, which is intended to replace the military’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program fleet as well as NOAA’s Polar Operational Environmental Satellites.
Kenneth Krieg, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, will decide in June whether to cancel the program, or continue it, based on several parameters outlined in a Jan. 12 Pentagon news release.
The Pentagon review of the NPOESS program had initially been slated to wrap up in May, but the Nunn-McCurdy legislation was recently amended to add an extra month to the maximum allowed time for a review . Withee said the extra time will be helpful in the case of NPOESS given the need to coordinate among several agencies on the effort, he said.
Continuation of a program that triggers a Nunn-McCurdy review can be justified for reasons including: importance to national security, absence of an equivalent capability at a lower cost, a reliable current cost estimate, and confidence that the management structure for the program can keep its cost under control for the future, according to the Pentagon news release.
The projected cost of the NPOESS program, which is run by Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles, has risen well above its previous estimate of $7.4 billion largely due to technical difficulty with its sensors, and DeMint said he expected the cost to grow by about $3.5 billion.
While the NPOESS program includes 13 sensors, most of the problems have centered on two: the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite, which is built by Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif., and is designed to provide imagery and take ocean-surface temperature and color readings; and the Conical Microwave Imager Sounder, which is built by Boeing Satellite Systems of El Segundo. It is designed to monitor atmospheric temperature and humidity, cloud cover and ocean-surface wind speeds.
David Ryan, Northrop Grumman vice president and program manager for NPOESS, said work on those sensors has been proceeding much better in recent months. Northrop Grumman has been monitoring those sensors far more closely, and has conducted reviews that have helped to head off several issues that could have turned into larger problems down the road, Ryan said during a March 28 conference call with reporters.
Those reviews have resulted in technical changes that might seem small, but they are important to ensuring proper operation of the sensors, Ryan said. The changes include, for example, using stronger screws to ensure that vibration does not cause problems, Ryan said.
The NPOESS satellites, which at one point were scheduled to be launched beginning in 2008, are now expected to launch around 2012 or 2013, Ryan said.
DeMint and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the full committee, both expressed concern during the hearing that delays on NPOESS could lead to a gap in polar-orbiting satellite coverage.
Withee said that NOAA’s current polar-orbiting fleet, including one spacecraft that is on the ground awaiting launch, would likely last until 2013.
Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, said that the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program fleet, which includes four satellites on the ground awaiting launch, will likely last until about 2014.
Stevens indicated that he was particularly concerned about the progress of NPOESS, given that Alaska’s location causes the state to rely primarily on data from polar orbiting satellites.
One option that would at least ensure continuity for Defense Department users would be to upgrade components like gyroscopes on one or more of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft on the ground awaiting launch, according to Payton.
Those gyroscopes, which perform inertial measurement functions for the satellites, are generally among the first components that fail on a satellite, Payton said. He did not specify how much lifetime could be added to the satellites by adding more durable gyroscopes.
However, Payton noted that performing what the military calls a “service life extension program” would require significant reworking of the satellites, and could be expensive.
DeMint also expressed concern that the award fees on the NPOESS program may not be giving Northrop Grumman proper incentive to keep the work on track.
David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office, testified that Northrop Grumman had earned most of its award fees thus far, despite the cost growth on the program. However, Payton testified that Northrop Grumman had earned only 48 percent of its most recent award fee.