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Divorce, Pentagon Style

Divorces usually leave the parties exhausted, miserable and, sometimes, a lot poorer. People fight over the kids, the dogs, the books. Only the Pentagon could be contemplating a divorce over a satellite system. But OSD is considering seeking permanent separation from NASA and NOAA, its confreres in the deeply troubled and fiscally challenged program known as NPOESS. The first recommendations on just how to divide the family assets and responsibilities are likely next week.

Here are some of the problems wracking the program. It may be as much as another $500 million over budget, roughly a 6 percent cost increase. It's not enough to trigger another Nunn-McCurdy, but it's a healthy increase. The original program costs were $6.8 billion. As of June 2006 they were estimated at $11.1 billion. They had risen to $14 billion as of June 2008, according to a congressional source. Tack on up to $500 million and you may be close to what the program will now cost taxpayers.

The original due date for the first satellite was this year. The first NPOESS satellite is now scheduled for launch in 2014, which some fear may leave a gap in the country's weather forecasting abilities.

Perhaps the biggest problem NPOESS has faced --aside from continuing difficult technical issues with a sensor known as VIIRS and earlier production problems that appear to have been rectified -- is its management structure.

It's tough enough to run a highly technical and complex program with clear lines of authority. Now imagine a program that is run three -- that's right -- three government agencies. The Defense Department is technically the lead agency running the program. It has milestone decision authority and the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics is the executive agent for the program. But authority to run the program day to day, and week to week is vested in an entity called the Executive Committee, fondly known as the ExCom. This includes representatives from DoD, NASA and NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Department of Commerce).

In May of 2006, two senior House Science Committee Democrats called for the removal of NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher and John Kelly deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere. That didn't happen. Instead, Lautenbacher promised to do a much better and more frequent job of reporting to Congress about NPOESS.

But two congressional aides and a senior OSD official all say that the ExCom remains a nightmare. It diffuses authority and slows the government's ability to respond to problems. Also, the Pentagon worries that NOAA just does not possess the skill to manage a complex satellite program and NASA worries that DoD won't listen to its scientists who help design the sensors and then depend on them for data.

Put all this together and divorce looks likely, the two congressional aides said. "I can’t imagine why we would not want a divorce," said one Hill source. Senior Pentagon officials are in favor of the divorce.

If a divorce occurs, money may -- as so often happens -- be the hardest issue to solve. NOAA helps fund NPOESS but has never paid for such an expensive satellite. It is relatively little money for a Pentagon space program but the military is fed up with pouring money into a venture they can't control and which does not seem to get much better with time.

If divorce occurs, things will in many ways return to normal for NOAA and NASA. In the past NOAA funded weather and climate satellites. NASA built them and launched them. Then NOAA ran them.

Tune in next week for the next exciting episode of, "As the Satellite Turns..."

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