White House To Rule on NPOESS Management Changes in September

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WASHINGTON — The White House by Sept. 26 will decide on proposed changes to a troubled weather satellite program that include assigning management responsibility for the tri-agency effort to either NASA or the U.S. Air Force, according to government sources.

According to a congressional source, Shere Abbott, associate director of environment in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is leading a panel that seeks to make changes in time to influence the 2011 budget. The source was reading from a July 28 memo from John Holdren, White House science adviser and director of that office, to senior leaders of the agencies managing the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite (NPOESS) program.

NPOESS is funded by the U.S. Defense Department and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and managed by an integrated program office that includes NASA personnel. Holdren’s memo said leaders of the three agencies concur with many of the findings of an independent NPOESS review panel, including a judgment that the integrated program office has been ineffective and that the program should be moved to an established space acquisition center run by the Air Force or NASA.

Originally planned for launch in 2009, the first NPOESS satellite is now scheduled to fly in 2014. A precursor satellite dubbed the NPOESS Preparatory Project, now scheduled for launch in 2011, originally was supposed to serve as a test bed for the primary NPOESS sensors, but will now be thrust into an operational role because of the delays. The current lifecycle cost of NPOESS is $14 billion.

Former Martin Marietta Chief Executive A. Thomas Young was tapped in 2008 to lead a team to find the root of the problems with NPOESS and make recommendations for putting the program on track for success. Young’s team reported in March that the program suffered from a management gridlock and had little chance to succeed without White House intervention. The team recommended scrapping NPOESS’s tri-agency management structure and handing the program over to NOAA to be managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The panel also recommended sticking with NPOESS prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Los Angeles, and accelerating development of the third and fourth satellites in the series, which have not yet been approved.

The three NPOESS principals — Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and NASA Associate Administrator Chris Scolese — all agree that the current management structure has not worked, basic program execution needs to be improved, and more work is needed to define specific changes at the executive committee and program office levels, Holdren said in the memo. The three principals attended an NPOESS executive committee meeting July 16, at which time Scolese was acting NASA administrator, government and industry sources said.

In addition to addressing management issues, Abbott’s group is seeking to reconcile differences in budgeting and cost estimation, determine the available options for reducing risk and align priorities and requirements, Holdren said.

The panel will report back to the principals with decisions 30 to 60 days from the date of the memo. “We want all this to inform [fiscal year 2011] budget,” Holdren said, according to the congressional source.

Abbott’s panel is still studying all possible options for NPOESS, and no decisions have yet been reached, Office of Science and Technology Policy spokesman Ted Wackler said in an Aug. 28 e-mailed response to questions.

Meanwhile, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with budgetary authority over NOAA and NASA, expressed support for the administration’s efforts to get NPOESS back on track and requested an update by Sept. 4.

“Recent findings made by an independent review team led by Tom Young, coupled with ongoing Government Accountability Office reports, suggest the NPOESS program continues to struggle, and that this program will fail without immediate course changes,” Mikulski and Shelby wrote in a July 20 letter to Holdren. “As Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the Senate’s Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations subcommittee, we want to support the administration’s efforts to bring these future weather satellites back on track.”