Geostationary Weather Satellites:

Progress Made, but Weaknesses in Scheduling, Contingency Planning, and Communicating with Users Need to Be Addressed

GAO-13-597: Published: Sep 9, 2013. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2013.

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David A. Powner
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What GAO Found

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has completed the design of its Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series and made progress in building flight and ground components. While the program reports that it is on track to stay within its $10.9 billion life cycle cost estimate, it has not reported key information on reserve funds to senior management. Also, the program has delayed interim milestones, is experiencing technical issues, and continues to demonstrate weaknesses in the development of component schedules. These factors have the potential to affect the expected October 2015 launch date of the first GOES-R satellite, and program officials now acknowledge that the launch date may be delayed by 6 months. A launch delay would increase the time that NOAA is without an on-orbit backup satellite. It would also increase the potential for a gap in GOES satellite coverage should one of the two operational satellites (GOES-14 or -15) fail prematurely - a scenario given a 36 percent likelihood of occurring by an independent review team.

While the GOES-R program has established a process for managing requirements changes, it has not effectively involved key satellite data users. Since 2007, the GOES-R program decided not to develop 31 of the original set of GOES products and modified specifications on 20 remaining products. For example, NOAA decreased the accuracy requirement for the hurricane intensity product and decreased the timeliness of the lightning detection product. However, key satellite data users were not fully informed about changes and did not have a chance to communicate their concerns about the impact of these changes on their operations. Until NOAA improves its communication with external satellite data users, obtains input from the users, and addresses user concerns when considering product changes, its changes could cause an unexpected impact on critical user operations.

NOAA has established contingency plans for the loss of its GOES satellites and ground systems that are generally in accordance with best practices; however, these plans are missing key elements. For example, NOAA did not work with the user community to address potential reductions in capability under contingency scenarios or identify alternative solutions for preventing a delay in the GOES-R launch date. Until NOAA addresses the shortfalls in its contingency plans and procedures, the plans may not work as intended in an emergency and satellite data users may not obtain the information they need to perform their missions.

Why GAO Did This Study

NOAA, with the aid of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is procuring the next generation of geostationary weather satellites. The GOES-R series is to replace the current series of satellites (called GOES-13, -14, and -15), which will likely begin to reach the end of their useful lives in 2015. This new series is considered critical to the United States' ability to maintain the continuity of satellite data required for weather forecasting through 2036.

GAO was asked to evaluate GOES-R. GAO's objectives were to (1) assess GOES-R progress and efforts to address key cost and schedule risks; (2) evaluate efforts to manage changes in requirements and whether any significant changes have recently occurred; and (3) evaluate the adequacy of GOES-R contingency plans. To do so, GAO analyzed program and contractor data, compared GOES-R schedules, requirements changes, and contingency plans to best practices by leading organizations, and interviewed officials at NOAA, NASA, and at other federal agencies that rely on GOES.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is recommending that NOAA address weaknesses in managing reserves and scheduling, improve communications with satellite data users, and address shortfalls in contingency planning. NOAA concurred with GAO's recommendations and identified steps it is taking to implement them.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: While the GOES-R series program has expanded its reporting of contingency reserve information to the Program Management Council (PMC), the information reported at monthly PMC meetings does not include contingency reserves broken out for each satellite in the GOES-R series.

    Recommendation: To address risks in the GOES-R program development and to help ensure that the satellite is launched on time, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to direct program officials to include information on the amount of reserve funding for each of the four satellites in the program as well as information on the calculation and use of reserves in regular briefings to NOAA senior executives, so that executives are fully informed about changes in reserve levels.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation and the GOES-R series program has since made improvements to its scheduling management practices. Overall, the primary schedules for the program's flight and ground project showed improvement in four and two best practices areas, respectively. For example, all subcontractor activities are now included in the core ground schedule and there is a higher percentage of activities allocated to individual resources in the spacecraft schedule. In 2013, the program also identified further actions to ensure appropriate schedule logic, including monthly "health checks" and faster elimination of unnecessary constraints. However, these actions do not yet fulfill the recommendation. The program has not yet provided details showing a realistic allocation of resources, nor has it demonstrated that it has addressed shortfalls in other component schedules. We will continue to monitor the agency's progress in addressing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To address risks in the GOES-R program development and to help ensure that the satellite is launched on time, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to, given the likely gap in availability of an on-orbit GOES backup satellite in 2015 and 2016, address the weaknesses identified in this report on the core ground system and the spacecraft schedules. These weaknesses include, but are not limited to, sequencing all activities, ensuring there are adequate resources for the activities, and conducting a schedule risk analysis.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: Throughout 2014 and 2015, NOAA disseminated information on past and potential changes in requirements to satellite data users, including by conducting user readiness presentations, training sessions, and developing a User Readiness Plan. NOAA also organized events, such as the NOAA Satellite Conference, in which the GOES-R program presented information and answered questions from users in a series of detailed breakout sessions. However, NOAA's actions to date do not fully implement our recommendation. For instance, NOAA did not provide information showing that it had assessed the impact of changes on users' critical operations. Also, in early 2014, two of the same three GOES users upon which this recommendation was based stated that they had not received information from GOES-R on planned or potential functionality changes. We plan to monitor whether the program's performance in providing this information improves.

    Recommendation: To address risks in the GOES-R program development and to help ensure that the satellite is launched on time, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to improve communications with internal and external satellite data users on changes in GOES-R requirements by (a) assessing the impact of changes on user's critical operations; (b) seeking information from users on any concerns they might have about past or potential changes; and (c) disseminating information on past and potential changes in requirements to satellite data users.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA concurred with this recommendation and released a new version of its geostationary satellite contingency plan in February 2015. The new plan includes information on steps planned or underway to mitigate potential launch delays, the potential impact of failure scenarios in the plan, and the minimum performance levels expected under such scenarios.

    Recommendation: To address risks in the GOES-R program development and to help ensure that the satellite is launched on time, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to revise the satellite and ground system contingency plans to address weaknesses identified in this report, including providing more information on the potential impact of a satellite failure, identifying alternative solutions for preventing a delay in GOES-R launch as well as time lines for implementing those solutions, and coordinating with key external stakeholders on contingency strategies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce


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