Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellites:

Agencies Must Act Quickly to Address Risks That Jeopardize the Continuity of Weather and Climate Data

GAO-10-558: Published: May 27, 2010. Publicly Released: Jun 29, 2010.

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In the 8 years since a contract was awarded, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS)--a tri-agency program managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)--has experienced escalating costs, schedule delays, and ineffective interagency management. The launch date for a demonstration satellite has been delayed by over 5 years and the cost estimate for the program has more than doubled--to about $15 billion. In February 2010, a Presidential task force decided to disband NPOESS and, instead, have the agencies undertake separate acquisitions. GAO was asked to (1) assess efforts to establish separate satellite programs; (2) evaluate the status and risks of the NPOESS components still under development; and (3) evaluate the implications of using the demonstration satellite's data operationally. To do so, GAO analyzed program management and cost data, attended program reviews, and interviewed agency officials.

NOAA and DOD have begun planning to transition the NPOESS program to separate acquisitions, but neither has finalized its plans. NOAA has developed preliminary plans for its new program--called the Joint Polar Satellite Program--to meet the requirements of the afternoon NPOESS orbit. DOD expects to make decisions on the spacecraft and sensors by June and October 2010, respectively. Because neither agency has completed its plans, the impact of the decision to disband the program on expected costs, schedules, and promised capabilities has not been fully determined. Moving forward, the agencies face key risks in transitioning from NPOESS to their separate programs. These risks include the loss of key staff and capabilities, delays in negotiating contract changes and establishing new program offices, the loss of support for the other agency's requirements, and insufficient oversight of new program management. Until these risks are effectively mitigated, it is likely that the satellite programs' costs will continue to grow and launch dates will continue to be delayed, which could lead to gaps in the continuity of critical satellite data. While NOAA and DOD are establishing plans for their separate acquisitions, the development of key components of the NPOESS program is continuing. In recent months, a critical imaging sensor has been completed and integrated onto the spacecraft of a demonstration satellite, called the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP). In addition, the program continues to work on components of the first and second NPOESS satellites, which are to be transferred to NOAA and DOD to become part of their respective follow-on programs. However, the expected launch date of the NPP satellite has been delayed by 9 months due to technical issues in the development of a key sensor. Further, the program is slowing down and may need to stop work on key components because of potential contract liabilities and funding constraints, but has not developed a prioritized list on what to stop first. This may further delay NPP and the components of the first NOAA and DOD satellites under their new programs. Because the NPP demonstration satellite was designed as a risk-reduction mission, not as an operational asset, it has several limitations. These limitations include fewer ground-based data processing systems, fewer security controls, and a shorter satellite lifespan than exist for current or planned operational satellites. These design limitations mean that, in some cases, NPP's data will not be as timely, useful, and secure as other polar satellites and that there is a risk of a gap in the nation's climate and weather services should NPP fail before the next satellite is launched. Agency officials acknowledge these limitations and are assessing options to make NPP data more timely and secure. GAO is making recommendations to NOAA and DOD to address key risks in transitioning to their respective new programs. Both agencies agreed with GAO's recommendations and identified plans for addressing them. GAO is making recommendations to NOAA and DOD to address key risks in transitioning to their respective new programs. Both agencies agreed with GAO's recommendations and identified plans for addressing them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) has transitioned from the NPOESS program to the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program. In July 2013, JPSS established its cost, schedule, and technical baselines for the program.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the transition from NPOESS to its successor programs is efficiently and effectively managed, the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce should direct their respective NPOESS follow-on programs to expedite decisions on the expected cost, schedule, and capabilities of their planned programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As noted in our report issued in June 2012, the NPOESS Preparatory Project's (NPP) satellite was launched in October 2011. The satellite was subsequently activated and all of the instruments were commissioned; this process ended in March 2012. Although calibration and validation of the satellite will not be completed until October 2013, DOD's users have already begun using NPP's data. Thus, the agency has accepted the risks related to the timeliness of NPP's data.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the transition from NPOESS to its successor programs is efficiently and effectively managed, the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce should direct NOAA and DOD officials to develop time frames for making key decisions on--or accepting the risks related to--the timeliness of NPP's data.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) has cancelled its follow-on program to NPOESS. The agency is developing an analysis of alternatives to meet its environmental satellite requirements. However, as of July 2014 there is no program of record for the follow-on to NPOESS.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the transition from NPOESS to its successor programs is efficiently and effectively managed, the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce should direct their respective NPOESS follow-on programs to expedite decisions on the expected cost, schedule, and capabilities of their planned programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As noted in our report issued in June 2012, the NPOESS Preparatory Project's (NPP) satellite was launched in October 2011. The satellite was subsequently activated and all of the instruments were commissioned; this process ended in March 2012. Although calibration and validation of the satellite will not be completed until October 2013, NOAA's users have already begun using NPP's data. Thus, the agency has accepted the risks related to the timeliness of NPP's data.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the transition from NPOESS to its successor programs is efficiently and effectively managed, the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce should direct NOAA and DOD officials to develop time frames for making key decisions on--or accepting the risks related to--the timeliness of NPP's data.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Defense (DOD) has cancelled its follow-on program to NPOESS. The agency is developing an analysis of alternatives to meet its environmental satellite requirements. However, as of July 2014 there is no program of record for the follow-on to NPOESS.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the transition from NPOESS to its successor programs is efficiently and effectively managed, the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce should direct their respective NPOESS follow-on programs to develop plans to address key transition risks, including the loss of skilled staff, delays in contract negotiations and setting up new program offices, loss of support for the other agency's requirements, and oversight of new program management.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agencies established priorities for slowing and/or stopping work activities in fiscal year 2010. Specifically, the agencies agreed to continue work on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Preparatory Project (NPP), and slow work on other contracts, in order to ensure that NPP launched on time. NPP launched successfully in October 2011.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the transition from NPOESS to its successor programs is efficiently and effectively managed, the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce should direct the NPOESS program office to develop priorities for work slowdown and stoppage to allow the activities that are most important to maintaining launch schedules to continue.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As noted in our report issued in June 2012, NOAA and NASA has developed a risk management process for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), which includes a documented risk management strategy and a program to identify, track, and mitigate risks. As part of this process, NOAA is tracking staffing as a risk; it presents the status each month during program management council meetings; and it has a plan for staffing key positions. In addition, the JPSS program office has identified data delivery to DOD's users as a key risk. The program office also presents the status of this risk in monthly meetings and has a mitigation plan in place.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the transition from NPOESS to its successor programs is efficiently and effectively managed, the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce should direct their respective NPOESS follow-on programs to develop plans to address key transition risks, including the loss of skilled staff, delays in contract negotiations and setting up new program offices, loss of support for the other agency's requirements, and oversight of new program management.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agencies established priorities for slowing and/or stopping work activities in fiscal year 2010. Specifically, the agencies agreed to continue work on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Preparatory Project (NPP), and slow work on other contracts, in order to ensure that NPP launched on time. NPP launched successfully in October 2011.

    Recommendation: In order to ensure that the transition from NPOESS to its successor programs is efficiently and effectively managed, the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce should direct the NPOESS program office to develop priorities for work slowdown and stoppage to allow the activities that are most important to maintaining launch schedules to continue.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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