Weathering the Breakup
White House hopes for blue skies ahead after tri-agency weather satellite split.
—Michael C. Sirak
Feb. 8, 2010—In the White House's own words, "conflicting perspectives and priorities" ultimately doomed the tri-agency attempt to field the next-generation civil-military weather satellite known as NPOESS.
Indeed, facing "serious lapses in capabilities" on the horizon if nothing were done, the Obama Administration is undertaking a drastic overhaul of the project by dissolving the forced marriage between the Defense Department (led by the Air Force), Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA.
Under the restructure, the Air Force will concentrate on building a new satellite to meet the needs of the military community for weather observation and forecasting, Gary Payton, the Air Force's top civilian space official, told reporters Feb. 4 in Washington, D.C. He said this new satellite design would reside in the so-called early morning orbit for weather monitoring.
The Air Force is planning to start its new satellite acquisition effort in the fourth quarter of Fiscal 2011, according to the White House.
Conversely, NOAA and NASA will focus on the task deemed by the Administration to be more urgent: fielding a new spacecraft primarily for climate monitoring that operates in the afternoon orbit.
All the parties will continue to mature a common ground system for these satellites.
The goal is to place these efforts "on a more sustainable pathway toward success," stated the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OTSP) in a release on the restructure plan Feb. 1, the same day on which the Administration's Fiscal 2011 budget proposal went to Congress reflecting these changes.
Activities within the joint program to develop NPOESS, which stands for the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, have become so discombobulated that the program "cannot be successfully executed with the current management structure, and with the current budget structure," stated OTSP.
The program has experienced lengthy delays due in large part to developmental challenges with some of the weather sensors. Alone since 2002, the total estimated lifecycle costs of NPOESS have more than doubled from $6.5 billion to about $13.9 billion today, according to OTSP.
With the pending restructure, Payton said the Air Force will reexamine the requirements that were set for NPOESS to determine which of them are necessary going forward for the new military weather satellite design.
"We think that will take weeks and months, not years," he said.
After that, decisions will be made on whether the existing NPOESS spacecraft bus and already-developed sensors would satisfy the military requirements.
"I have a suspicion that they can," he said.
Equally important, Payton said, the Air Force is working to ensure that the organizational split from NOAA and NASA occurs as smoothly as possible and nothing that the service does disrupts in any way their work in maturing the next climate-monitoring satellite.
"We don’t want to impede NOAA's and NASA's use of resources from the NPOESS program as they put together their new spacecraft," he said.
As a result of this, Payton said the Air Force would not make any knee-jerk move to terminate the NPOESS prime contract with Northrop Grumman since it makes no sense to rapidly disassemble the workforce and expertise that took a long time to build.
"We spent $2 billion and a decade getting government and industry smart on this NPOESS program," he explained. He continued, "We are consciously not terminating the prime contract right now because we'd be throwing away years of experience and hundreds of people and we'd be jeopardizing [NOAA's and NASA's] ability to continue the sensors that are already in development."
In fact, he said the Air Force has asked Congress not to disturb the NPOESS funding in Fiscal 2010 and to provide the more than $400 million that the service has requested in Fiscal 2011 to enable that smooth transition.
Payton said the Defense Department is well-positioned in the sense that the Air Force just placed the most recent Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft, DMSP Flight 18, into orbit last October and still has two more satellites, DMSP-19 and DMSP-20, completed and available for placement in space when needed.
"[DMSP-19 and DMSP-20] give us a little more flexibility in our future," he said.
He said while these two satellites "most likely" would be placed in the military's morning weather orbit at some future point, they are available, if necessary to fill any gap in the other weather orbits should the civil community need them to maintain the continuity of data for climate-monitoring.
Payton noted that, although the morning orbit is most important for DOD, "military users still need information" from the other weather orbits.
He also said plans are to go forward with the launch of the NPOESS Preparatory Project satellite, now set for September 2011, despite the imminent restructure. NPP will reside in the afternoon orbit, he said.
Originally envisioned as a technology demonstration spacecraft to reduce risk to operational NPOESS satellites, NPP became a part of the planned operational constellation after the program was reworked back in 2006.
(For more on the Air Force's Fiscal 2011 budget proposal, read Modest Growth.)
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