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Northrop VIIRS Ahead, Finally

After two years or so of claiming that they had fixed the key sensor on one of the most troubled programs in recent Pentagon history it looks as if Northrop Grumman has finally found a fix.

The program is NPOESS, the nation's most sophisticated weather and climate satellite managed and funded by a tortured trio of the Pentagon, NOAA (at the Commerce Department) and NASA. The sensor is the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). The essential news is that the sensor "completed testing in late October, including 112 days of thermal vacuum and post-thermal vacuum testing." A key detail -- VIIRS was put into a shipping container, clearly indicating this is not another case of, we have a fix on hand and it looks promising.

NPOESS has stumbled through at least two Nunn-McCurdy breaches in the last five years. It created enormous strains within and between the Commerce Department, the Pentagon and NASA. As we reported, the three government agencies came very close to divorce. It didn't go through largely because so much money had already been spent and so much political capital committed that no one was willing to actually split the program and risk any more problems.

How bad has this program been? When I last looked at the end of April, it looked to be as much as another $500 million over budget, roughly a 6 percent cost increase, not enough to trigger another Nunn-McCurdy, but 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.

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.

They key function for VIIRS is its ability to monitor ocean color and the sensor just has not been able to do that as well as it was supposed to. And it looks as if VIIRS still isn't quite up to snuff, if the statement by the program's VP is read closely. "Issues of design and performance were substantially allayed as we reviewed testing results and saw that this sensor will indeed deliver beneficial new capabilities," Dave Vandervoet, NPOESS vice president and program manager for Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems sector, said in the release. "Substantially allayed" sounds like an honest assessment.

To be fair, VIIRS will not only monitor ocean color. It will also gather visible and infrared imagery, radiometric data on the atmosphere and sea surface temperature among other things. And it should do those things better than any satellite now in orbit can do them. But it's been a long, hard road to get close to what the taxpayer paid for.

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