Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites:

Steps Remain in Incorporating Lessons Learned from Other Satellite Programs

GAO-06-993: Published: Sep 6, 2006. Publicly Released: Sep 29, 2006.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plans to procure the next generation of geostationary operational environmental satellites, called the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites-R series (GOES-R). This new series is considered critical to the United States' ability to maintain the continuity of data required for weather forecasting through the year 2028. GAO was asked to (1) determine the status of and plans for the GOES-R series procurement, and (2) identify and evaluate the actions that the program management team is taking to ensure that past problems experienced in procuring other satellite programs are not repeated.

NOAA is nearing the end of the preliminary design phase of its GOES-R system--which was estimated to cost $6.2 billion and scheduled to have the first satellite ready for launch in 2012. It expects to award a contract in August 2007 to develop this system. However, according to program officials, NOAA's plans for the GOES-R procurement could change in the near future. Recent analyses of the GOES-R program cost--which in May 2006 the program office estimated could reach $11.4 billion--have led the agency to consider reducing the scope of requirements for the satellite series. NOAA officials estimated that a decision on the future scope and direction of the program could be made by the end of September 2006. NOAA has taken steps to implement lessons learned from past satellite programs, but more remains to be done. Prior satellite programs--including a prior GOES series, a polar-orbiting environmental satellite series, and various military satellite programs--often experienced technical challenges, cost overruns, and schedule delays. Key lessons from these programs include the need to (1) establish realistic cost and schedule estimates, (2) ensure sufficient technical readiness of the system's components prior to key decisions, (3) provide sufficient management at government and contractor levels, and (4) perform adequate senior executive oversight to ensure mission success. NOAA has established plans to address these lessons by conducting independent cost estimates, performing preliminary studies of key technologies, placing resident government offices at key contractor locations, and establishing a senior executive oversight committee. However, many steps remain to fully address these lessons. Until it completes these activities, NOAA faces an increased risk that the GOES-R program will repeat the increased cost, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls that have plagued past procurements.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve NOAA's ability to effectively manage the procurement of the GOES-R system, the Secretary of Commerce should direct its NOAA Program Management Council once the scope of the program has been finalized to establish a process for objectively evaluating and reconciling the government and independent life cycle cost estimates.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA finalized the scope of the GOES-R program in October 2007 and directed the program office and an independent cost estimating firm to complete life-cycle cost estimates. In agreement with our recommendation, NOAA's Chief Financial Officer established a rigorous process for objectively evaluating these cost estimates and reconciled these estimates accordingly.

    Recommendation: To improve NOAA's ability to effectively manage the procurement of the GOES-R system, the Secretary of Commerce should direct its NOAA Program Management Council to perform a comprehensive review of the Advanced Baseline Imager, using system engineering experts, to determine the level of technical maturity achieved on the instrument, to assess whether the contractor has implemented sound management and process engineering, and to assert that the technology is sufficiently mature before moving the instrument into production.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA agreed with our recommendation and established an independent review team to assess the Advanced Baseline Imager before moving it into production. In February 2007, the independent review team validated that the instrument's design was robust and mature enough to enter the production phase. Further, the independent review team concluded that the program plans, project management, staff capability, and current risk level were sufficient to enter the production phase.

    Recommendation: To improve NOAA's ability to effectively manage the procurement of the GOES-R system, the Secretary of Commerce should direct its NOAA Program Management Council to seek assistance from an independent review team to determine the appropriate level of resources needed at the program office to adequately track and oversee the contractor's earned value management. Among other things, the program office should be able to perform a comprehensive integrated baseline review after system development contract award, provide surveillance of contractor earned value management systems, and perform project scheduling analyses and cost estimates.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2007, the GOES-R program convened an independent review team to review the earned value management staffing plans. The review team made a series of recommendations and the program office implemented them. The program office currently has four earned value specialists and plans to hire two additional specialists in fiscal year 2009.

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