Environmental Satellites:

Polar-orbiting Satellite Acquisition Faces Delays; Decisions Needed on Whether and How to Ensure Climate Data Continuity

GAO-08-518: Published: May 16, 2008. Publicly Released: Jun 19, 2008.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

David A. Powner
(202) 512-3000
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is a triagency acquisition--managed by the Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)--that has experienced escalating costs, schedule delays, and technical difficulties. These factors led to a June 2006 decision to restructure the program by reducing the number of satellites and sensors, increasing estimated costs to $12.5 billion, and delaying the first two satellites by 3 to 5 years. Among other objectives, GAO was asked to evaluate progress in restructuring the acquisition, assess the status of key program components and risks, and assess NASA's, NOAA's, and DOD's plans for obtaining the data originally planned to be collected by NPOESS sensors, but eliminated by the restructuring. To do so, GAO analyzed program and contractor data, attended program reviews, and interviewed agency officials.

The program office has completed most of the major activities associated with restructuring the NPOESS acquisition, but key activities remain to be completed. In the past year, the program redefined the program's deliverables, costs, and schedules, and renegotiated the NPOESS contract. However, agency executives have not yet finalized selected acquisition documents (including the tri-agency memorandum of agreement). Without the executive approval of key acquisition documents, the program lacks the underlying commitment needed to effectively manage a tri-agency program. Over the past year, the NPOESS program has continued to make progress in completing development activities, but key milestones have been delayed and multiple risks remain. Specifically, poor workmanship and testing delays caused an 8-month slip in the expected delivery of a technologically complex imaging sensor that is critical to weather and climate observations. This later delivery caused a corresponding 8-month delay in the expected launch date of a demonstration satellite, called the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP). This demonstration satellite is intended to provide on-orbit experiences that can be used to reduce risks on NPOESS satellites and to provide interim weather and climate observations should predecessor weather and climate satellites begin to degrade or fail. Moving forward, risks remain in completing the testing of key sensors, integrating them on the NPP spacecraft, and ensuring sufficient system security. The program office is aware of these risks and is working to mitigate them, but continued problems could affect the program's overall schedule and cost. When the NPOESS restructuring decision removed four climate and space environment sensors from the program and reduced the functionality of four others, the program was directed to restore a limited version of one sensor and to restore the seven others if funded by entities outside the program office. NOAA, NASA, and DOD have taken preliminary steps to restore the capabilities of selected sensors by prioritizing the sensors, assessing options for restoring them, and making decisions to mitigate near-term data gaps by adding two sensors to the NPP satellite. However, the agencies have not yet developed plans to mitigate the loss of these and other sensors on a long-term basis. Until such a plan is developed, the agencies may lose windows of opportunity for selecting cost effective options or they may resort to an ad hoc approach to restoring these sensors. Almost 2 years have passed since key sensors were removed from the NPOESS program; further delays in establishing a plan could result in gaps in the continuity of climate and space environment data.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • 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: In order to bring closure to efforts that have been under way for years, the Secretaries of Commerce and Defense and the Administrator of NASA should establish plans on whether and how to restore the climate and space sensors removed from the NPOESS program by June 2009, in cases where the sensors are warranted and justified.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: in February 2010, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) would no longer jointly procure the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) satellite system; instead, each agency would plan and acquire its own satellite system. NOAA's program, which is to cover the afternoon satellite orbit, is called the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). NASA acts as the acquisition agent for the JPSS program and assists in developing the requirements for the program. In developing its initial requirements document, NOAA and NASA decided to accommodate sensors that were originally planned for the NPOESS program but canceled in 2006. For example, the agencies plan to accomodate two total solar irradiance sensors on free-flyer satellites. In addition, although microwave imager/sounder data was not originally planned for the afternoon orbit, the agencies plan to acquire this data from an international satellite.

    Recommendation: In order to bring closure to efforts that have been under way for years, the Secretaries of Commerce and Defense and the Administrator of NASA should establish plans on whether and how to restore the climate and space sensors removed from the NPOESS program by June 2009, in cases where the sensors are warranted and justified.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: in February 2010, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) would no longer jointly procure the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) satellite system; instead, each agency would plan and acquire its own satellite system. NOAA's program, which is to cover the afternoon satellite orbit, is called the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). In developing its initial requirements document, NOAA decided to accommodate sensors that were originally planned for the NPOESS program but canceled in 2006. For example, NOAA plans to accommodate two total solar irradiance sensors on free-flyer satellites. In addition, although microwave imager/sounder data was not originally planned for the afternoon orbit, NOAA plans to acquire this data from an international satellite.

    Recommendation: In order to bring closure to efforts that have been under way for years, the Secretaries of Commerce and Defense and the Administrator of NASA should establish plans on whether and how to restore the climate and space sensors removed from the NPOESS program by June 2009, in cases where the sensors are warranted and justified.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: in February 2010, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) would no longer jointly procure the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) satellite system; instead, each agency would plan and acquire its own satellite system. DOD's program, called the Defense Weather Satellite System, was to cover the early morning orbit. Although DOD began planning its requirements for the new program, the agency decided to terminate the program in early 2012.

    Apr 15, 2014

    Mar 12, 2014

    Feb 4, 2014

    Jan 13, 2014

    Jan 8, 2014

    Sep 19, 2013

    Sep 9, 2013

    Looking for more? Browse all our products here