Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellites:

With Costs Increasing and Data Continuity at Risk, Improvements Needed in Tri-agency Decision Making

GAO-09-564: Published: Jun 17, 2009. Publicly Released: Jun 17, 2009.

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The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is a tri-agency 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. As the often-delayed launch of its demonstration satellite draws closer, these problems continue. GAO was asked to (1) identify the status and risks of key program components, (2) assess the NPOESS Executive Committee's ability to fulfill its responsibilities, and (3) evaluate efforts to identify an alternative system integrator for later NPOESS satellites. To do so, GAO analyzed program and contractor data, attended program reviews, and interviewed agency officials.

While selected components of the NPOESS program have made progress over the past year, the program is once again over budget and behind schedule. In terms of progress, three of the five instruments slated for a demonstration satellite (called the NPOESS Preparatory Project--NPP) have been delivered and integrated on the spacecraft; the ground-based satellite data processing system has been installed and tested at both of the locations that are to receive NPP data; and the satellites' command, control, and communications system has passed acceptance testing. However, the program's approved cost and schedule baseline are not achievable, and problems with two critical sensors continue to drive the program's cost and schedule. Costs could grow by $1 billion over the current $13.95 billion estimate, and the schedules for NPP and the first two NPOESS satellites are expected to be delayed by 7, 14, and 5 months, respectively. These delays increase the risk of a gap in satellite continuity. An independent review team established to assess key program risks recently reported that the constellation of satellites is extremely fragile, and that there could be a 3 to 5 year gap in satellite coverage if NPP, NPOESS, or other DOD satellites fail on launch. The NPOESS Executive Committee responsible for overseeing the program has made improvements over the last several years, but still has not effectively fulfilled its responsibilities. Responding to past concerns expressed by GAO and the Department of Commerce's Inspector General, the Committee now meets on a regular basis, and has sought and reacted to advice from external advisors to mitigate specific risks. However, the Committee lacks the membership and leadership needed to effectively and efficiently oversee and direct the program. Specifically, the DOD Committee member with acquisition authority does not attend Executive Committee meetings--and sometimes contradicts the Committee's decisions, the Committee does not track its action items to closure, and many of the Committee's decisions do not achieve desired outcomes. Program officials and external independent reviewers explained that it is extremely difficult for the Committee to navigate three agencies' competing requirements and priorities. Until these shortfalls are addressed, the Committee will remain ineffective. The NPOESS program has conducted two successive studies of alternatives to using the existing system integrator for the last two NPOESS satellites, but neither identified a viable alternative to the current contractor. Both studies assessed a variety of alternatives, including re-competing the entire prime contract, obtaining an independent system integrator while having the existing prime contractor continue to develop space and ground components, and having the government take over responsibility for the system's integration. The first study identified strengths and weaknesses and the second study identified high-level costs and benefits. Neither study identified an alternative that is viable. Program officials plan to conduct a final study prior to the June 2010 decision on whether to proceed with the existing prime contractor.

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: To improve the timeliness and effectiveness of acquisition decision-making on the NPOESS program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics to attend and participate in NPOESS Executive Committee meetings.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with our recommendation and implemented it. The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics attended and participated in the NPOESS Executive Committee meetings, beginning with their July 2009 meeting. More recently, he participated on the White House task team that decided to disband the NPOESS program and in the on-going transition from NPOESS to two separate programs.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to improve the Committee's efficiency by establishing time frames for escalating risks to the Committee for action so that they do not linger unresolved at the program executive level.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2010, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced its decision to disband the tri-agency NPOESS program. Further, it announced that DOD and NOAA would undertake separate acquisitions to meet their needs in the morning and afternoon orbits, respectively. We consider the decision to be responsive to the many recommendations we made to address a wide array of weaknesses in the executive management structure.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to establish a realistic time frame for revising the program's cost and schedule baselines.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) has cancelled its follow-on program to NPOESS. The agency completed an analysis of alternatives to meet its environmental satellite requirements in August 2013 and this analysis is to be the basis for any future DOD acquisition decision. However, since DOD has not yet made a decision regarding a future environmental satellite acquisition, it has not established time frames for cost and schedule baselines.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to establish a realistic time frame for revising the program's cost and schedule baselines.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2010, the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy made a decision to disband NPOESS--a tri-agency program managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and NASA. Instead, NOAA and DOD will develop separate satellite programs, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) respectively. JPSS is a partnership between NOAA and NASA; NOAA has the final decision authority and is responsible for the overall JPSS program, and NASA serves as an acquisition agent. Thus, the two agencies' JPSS program is now responsible for developing the cost and schedule baseline for the polar satellite program. Our report published in June 2012 (GAO-12-604) found that the agencies have established a timeframe for putting an overall program baseline in place, which is by the end of November 2012.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to develop plans to mitigate the risk of gaps in satellite continuity.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) established a mitigation plan to address the impact of potential gaps in polar afternoon satellite data. This plan identifies alternatives for mitigating the risk of a 14- to 18-month gap in the afternoon orbit beginning in March 2016, between the current polar satellite and the JPSS-1 satellite. Key alternatives include utilizing different satellites as data sources and improving data assimilation in models. NOAA plans to update its plan during 2013 to include additional mitigation alternatives and semi-annually thereafter.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to develop plans to mitigate the risk of gaps in satellite continuity.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NASA and NOAA staff in the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program office worked to develop a mitigation plan to address the impact of potential gaps in polar afternoon satellite data. NOAA approved the plan in October 2012.The program plans to update its plan during 2013 to include additional mitigation alternatives and semi-annually thereafter.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to establish a realistic time frame for revising the program's cost and schedule baselines.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2010, the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy made a decision to disband NPOESS--a tri-agency program managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and NASA. Instead, NOAA and DOD will develop separate satellite programs, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) respectively. JPSS is a partnership between NOAA and NASA; NOAA has the final decision authority and is responsible for the overall JPSS program, and NASA serves as an acquisition agent. Thus, the two agencies' JPSS program is now responsible for developing the cost and schedule baseline for the polar satellite program. Our report published in June 2012 (GAO-12-604) found that the agencies have established a timeframe for putting an overall program baseline in place, which is by the end of November 2012.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to track the Committee's action items from inception to closure.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation and implemented it, beginning in July 2009. On behalf of the NPOESS Executive Committee, the Program Executive Officer for Environmental Satellites began tracking Executive Committee actions. The office also established a secure website to allow EXCOM Principals and their senior staff the ability to access and monitor the status of all action items on a real time basis.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to track the Committee's action items from inception to closure.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation and implemented it, beginning in July 2009. On behalf of the NPOESS Executive Committee, the Program Executive Officer for Environmental Satellites began tracking Executive Committee actions. The office also established a secure website to allow EXCOM Principals and their senior staff the ability to access and monitor the status of all action items on a real time basis.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to improve the Committee's ability to achieve successful outcomes by identifying the desired outcome associated with each of the Committee's actions, as well as time frames and responsible parties, when new action items are established.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation and implemented it, beginning in July 2009. On behalf of the NPOESS Executive Committee, the Program Executive Officer for Environmental Satellites began tracking action items and identified desired outcomes associated with their directed actions. As part of the action item tracking, the office also ensured that time frames and responsible parties are identified for each action item.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to improve the Committee's ability to achieve successful outcomes by identifying the desired outcome associated with each of the Committee's actions, as well as time frames and responsible parties, when new action items are established.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation and implemented it, beginning in July 2009. On behalf of the NPOESS Executive Committee, the Program Executive Officer for Environmental Satellites began tracking action items and identified desired outcomes associated with their directed actions. As part of the action item tracking, the office also ensured that time frames and responsible parties are identified for each action item.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to improve the Committee's ability to achieve successful outcomes by identifying the desired outcome associated with each of the Committee's actions, as well as time frames and responsible parties, when new action items are established.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation and implemented it, beginning in July 2009. On behalf of the NPOESS Executive Committee, the Program Executive Officer for Environmental Satellites began tracking action items and identified desired outcomes associated with their directed actions. As part of the action item tracking, the office also ensured that time frames and responsible parties are identified for each action item.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to improve the Committee's efficiency by establishing time frames for escalating risks to the Committee for action so that they do not linger unresolved at the program executive level.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2010, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced its decision to disband the tri-agency NPOESS program. Further, it announced that DOD and NOAA would move forward with separate acquisitions to meet their needs in the morning and afternoon orbits, respectively. We consider the decision to be responsive to the many recommendations we made to address a wide array of weaknesses in the executive management structure.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to improve the Committee's efficiency by establishing time frames for escalating risks to the Committee for action so that they do not linger unresolved at the program executive level.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2010, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced its decision to disband the tri-agency NPOESS program. Further, it announced that DOD and NOAA would undertake separate acquisitions to meet their needs in the morning and afternoon orbits, respectively. We consider the decision to be responsive to the many recommendations we made to address a wide array of weaknesses in the executive management structure.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to develop plans to mitigate the risk of gaps in satellite continuity.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) has canceled its follow-on program to NPOESS. In order to help mitigate the risk of a gap in the early morning orbit, the agency decided to launch both of its two remaining Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites in the early morning orbit rather than launching one in the early morning and one in the midmorning orbit as originally planned. In addition, DOD is analyzing alternative means to meet its future environmental satellite requirements.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of NASA should direct the NPOESS Executive Committee to track the Committee's action items from inception to closure.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation and implemented it, beginning in July 2009. On behalf of the NPOESS Executive Committee, the Program Executive Officer for Environmental Satellites began tracking Executive Committee actions. The office also established a secure website to allow EXCOM Principals and their senior staff the ability to access and monitor the status of all action items on a real time basis.

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