Technical issues could limit the instrument payload on the first of a new generation of U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellites to three years of operation rather than the planned seven, according to a new report by NASA’s inspector general. The satellite itself, long delayed due primarily to development issues with the instruments, is designed for a five-year mission.

The June 2 report quoted NASA program managers as saying the instruments were developed in “an undisciplined environment” overseen by a tri-agency office led by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense, with NASA as a junior partner. During development, the instruments “experienced technical and structural challenges that compromised their integrity,” the report said.

The satellite in question originally was intended as an experimental test bed for the civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, or NPOESS. NASA was responsible for developing the demonstration platform, dubbed the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP), which was thrust into an operational role due to lengthy delays on the now-canceled NPOESS program.

NPP was planned for launch in 2006 but is now slated to launch in late October from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on a Delta 2 rocket. Originally expected to cost $560 million, NPP now carries an $864 million price tag, according to the inspector general’s report, “NASA’s Management of the NPOESS Preparatory Project.”

The report absolved NASA of mismanagement in the NPP delays, placing the blame largely on the tri-agency NPOESS Integrated Program Office for botching the instrument development. But the space agency nonetheless will bear the brunt of the cost overrun resulting from the five-year delay, the report said.

NASA will be on the hook for another $35 million if the satellite is delayed further, the report said. If the current target launch date is missed, the next available launch slot at Vandenberg is in February 2012, and NASA alone would have to pay to sustain the infrastructure for the Delta 2 rocket, which does not have any launches planned from Vandenberg after NPP, the report said.

NASA alone was responsible for providing the NPP spacecraft platform and its Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder instrument. The NPOESS Integrated Program Office was responsible for the development of three instruments: the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite, the Crosstrack Infrared Sounder, and the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite.

“We found that NASA had implemented sound project management principles in carrying out its NPP responsibilities,” the report said. “Specifically, NASA management delivered the spacecraft and the instruments for which it had responsibility on schedule and within established milestones.”



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