WASHINGTON — Problems with two sensors slated to fly on the new generation of U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellites have added some $300 million to the program’s cost over the past year, and one of those instruments continues to pose challenges, according to U.S. government officials.

The Visible/Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) already has taken much of the blame for cost growth that led to the 2006 restructuring of the civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). According to Conrad Lautenbacher, administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), management issues with VIIRS prime contractor Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems continue to be a major concern.

David Powner,

director of




issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, told lawmakers that damage to the Cross-track Infrared Sounder during testing in 2006 also was a factor in the

cost growth of NPOESS. Powner and Lautenbacher testified June 19 before the House Science and Technology energy and environment subcommittee, which called the hearing to review a new Government Accountability Office r

eport entitled “Polar-orbiting Satellite Acquisition Faces Delays; Decisions Needed on Whether and How to Ensure Climate Data Continuity.”

The report said the projected life-cycle cost of NPOESS has grown from $12.5 billion to $13.6 billion since the 2006 restructuring, in part because of the instrument difficulties. In an interview June 20, Powner said the remainder of the projected cost growth – roughly $800 million – is due primarily to the addition of four years of NPOESS operations, and maintenance was not accounted for in previous estimates. He said the yearly cost of operating NPOESS has risen as well, but could not be specific.

Rep. Nicholas Lampson (D-Texas), chairman of the energy and environment subcommittee, said NOAA informed Congress the week of June 9 that some screw heads on the VIIRS instrument were sheared off during testing recently, and it appears the posts that the screws were driven into were defective. A worst-case scenario for fixing the problem would involve the complete disassembly of the instrument, he said.

If in fact the sensor must be disassembled, a precursor mission dubbed the NPOESS Preparatory Project, slated for launch in June 2010, would be delayed again, Lampson said.




team of investigators is looking into the

issue around the clock and that he received a phone call the night before the hearing that informed him the problem would not result in another launch delay.

In an e-mailed response to a request for comment,

John Barksdale, a spokesman for Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif., said

“the VIIRS sensor for the NPOESS Preparatory Project is in environmental test and on schedule for delivery in the spring of 2009. The VIIRS instrument represents first-of-its-kind technology and thus substantial challenges.

“Raytheon management is committed to being in lockstep with Northrop Grumman, the NPOESS Integrated Program Office and NASA to reduce the risks involved. We are committed to ensuring the success of this critical mission.”

Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., is the prime contractor on the NPOESS program; NASA is managing the NPOESS Preparatory Project.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Department is threatening to withhold its share of NPOESS funding for next year due to a paperwork snafu, according to the Government Accountability Office report. NPOESS is funded jointly by the U.S. Air Force and NOAA.

According to the report, John Young, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, issued a memorandum in May stating that a number of NPOESS acquisition documents have not yet been signed by the appropriate NOAA and Pentagon officials. If these documents remain unsigned come the end of August, Young said, the Defense Department will withhold its 2009 funding for the program, according to the report. The Pentagon has requested $289.5 million for the program next year, and NOAA has requested $288 million.

said all but six of the 22 documents have been completed, and the outstanding documents require only minor adjustments in language. He assured the committee he would do everything in his power to ensure the documents would be complete by Young’s deadline.

Chris Isleib, a spokesman for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, was unable to provide the current status of these documents by press time.