Broken Government

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Failure to launch: Satellite delays

The creation of a new satellite system combining civil and military programs has been fraught with structural and funding problems

Introduction

A Clinton-era initiative to combine civil and military meteorological programs into one massive new satellite system has been complicated by structural failures, delays, and cost overruns that could potentially hinder the nation’s ability to monitor climate. The National Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) — an interagency effort of the Department of Defense (DOD), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — is supposed to launch four new satellites to replace an aging set that provide data to weather forecasters, climatologists, and the military. The $6.5 billion price tag for the system in 1995 kept climbing until DOD was forced to completely restructure the program in June 2006; as part of that restructuring, the number of new satellites envisioned was reduced from six to four. The Department of Commerce Inspector General — which has jurisdiction over NOAA — found that the project suffered from “poor management oversight and ineffective incentives.” After the program was restructured, the price tag jumped to an estimated $12.5 billion, with a three- to five-year launch delay, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that both the funding picture and the schedule could continue to get worse. The restructuring forced DOD to prioritize space weather monitoring over climate monitoring for the new program, which led to a reduction in the number of satellites and sensors that will monitor the climate. NPOESS has taken steps to mitigate the loss of those climate sensors, but the program still faces a number of hurdles, including problems in quality control and testing delays. If current satellites fail, warned the GAO in 2006, “there could be a gap in environmental satellite data.” The NOAA press office did not respond to a request for comment, but a NOAA under secretary told Congress he would be “the first to acknowledge” the government’s problem-strewn track record, while Under Secretary of Defense John J. Young said he was “disappointed with the failure of NPOESS management to complete actions.” Specialists in global warming worry that the troubled program could cause uncertainties in climate change monitoring at a time when there is finally broad consensus about the need to act on the problem. Both presidential candidates stumped on the need to combat global warming, a phenomenon that President Bush also said is a “serious problem.”

Follow-up:
A summer 2008 report by the GAO found that the NPOESS program had made substantial progress, but also that “key milestones have been delayed and multiple risks remain.” NPOESS is working to make progress in those areas, while the GAO is currently developing another update tentatively due around spring 2009.

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