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Weather Sat Program Slammed

The White House, Congress NASA, NOAA, Defense Department and prime contractor Northrop Grumman failed time and again in their management and oversight of the multi-billion dollar weather satellite program known as NPOESS. The failures led to huge cost overruns, long schedule delays and scarred the space acquisition community for years. Perhaps most significantly for the long haul, it left behind a sense of distrust and discord between the Department of Defense, NASA and the Commerce Department, making interagency cooperation a greater challenge than ever.

Those are the findings of a wide-ranging and authoritative study of the program by the Aerospace Corp., a federally-funded research corporation that does most of its work for the Air Force, combined with insights offered by a former senior Pentagon official who played a key role on overseeing the program for several years. The NPOESS program was designed to provide crucial weather data to the military and to civilian agencies.

"What happened was a series of unfortunate events. If only one of them had happened it could have been recoverable, but mistake after mistake was made," said Josh Hartman, who should know, having served as one of congressional aides overseeing the program and as the Pentagon official directly responsible for overseeing space acquisition as advisor to the head of OSD acquisition.

The program received its initial and hardest push from Vice President Al Gore, who believed placing the sensors of several weather satellites on one platform would save money and provide the United States with unparalleled weather capabilities at a reasonable cost.

The Aerospace Corp. briefing on the program notes that the vice president hoped to "claim a small portion of the Peace Dividend by converging the military and civil weather satellite programs."

That didn't work very well, as Hartman notes:  "We thought it would be a wise idea to place nine sensors on a single platform. That gave us nine long poles in the tent. When you manage a program with nine poles it’s really difficult to get the tent up."

And Gore's support for the program did not mean that NOAA, the Pentagon and NASA stopped believing that White House support for the program vanished when Gore lost the election. Instead, the perception of White House support became a complicating factor in efforts to amend the program, Hartman says: "The fact this was a presidential matter of interest made it more difficult to go back and fix it."

Here are some of the other main findings of the Aerospace Corp. study:

  • "Chronically unrealistic cost estimation tainted the budget process, dictated the acquisition strategy, distorted management decisions, and set the program up for cost overruns.
  • "The government and the prime contractor failed to establish clear, detailed supplier performance expectations and appropriate incentives."
  • The acquisition strategy was built on two "major flaws"
  • There weren't enough "talented, sufficiently experienced staff." Those staff "were a root cause of program execution problems."
  • The management structure -- spread between NASA, NOAA, the Office of Secretary of Defense and the Air Force -- made it very difficult to make sound program decisions.
If you spoke with congressional staff, senior program officials and some industry insiders during the program's worst period several years ago, they would admit that the hydra-headed management system made it extremely difficult to find out what was happening, let alone fix the program. "It seemed like there were multiple heads trying to manage the program," is the way Hartman generously put it.

In addition to the larger structural problems cited above, the program's most important sensor, known as VIIRS, encountered problem after problem. It was so technically advanced that its builder, Raytheon, had great trouble making it work correctly. The government failed to award a second contract to force Raytheon to compete in building the sensor, the study finds. Also, the requirements were so demanding they were difficult to meet. And the "contract value was severely underpriced." In the long run, VIIRS "was the major cause of schedule delays" and ate up considerable amounts of the extra money pumped into the program to bring things back into line after the program was restructured after its Nunn-McCurdy breach in 2005.

Finally, Hartman notes that the most lasting damage may have been done to the interagency acquisition and decision processes.

"It came at great cost and, more notably, it came with much emotional tension through the actions of the interagency partners. They spent much political equity because they were not working well together,” he said. "There is something to be learned from this. We can't necessarily do interagency program management, and we’ve got to find a way to do that successfully."

After years of expressing anguish, the White House finally broke the program apart in February and ordered NOAA, NASA and the Pentagon to come up with new plans. That led to the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS), which was approved Aug. 13 by Ash Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, and the Joint Polar Satellite System. DWSS will cost around $5 billion. Northrop will build the new bird and it will carry VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite), and a microwave sensor. The two satellite systems will be commanded by and send their data through a common ground station system managed by NOAA and by NASA. NASA will manage the JPSS -- not NOAA.

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