Geostationary Weather Satellites:

Launch Date Nears, but Remaining Schedule Risks Need to be Addressed

GAO-15-60: Published: Dec 16, 2014. Publicly Released: Jan 15, 2015.

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What GAO Found

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) program has made major progress in developing its first satellite, including completing testing of satellite instruments. However, the program continues to face challenges in the areas of schedule, cost, and functionality. Specifically, the program has continued to experience delays in major milestones and cost overruns on key components. Also, in order to meet the planned launch date, the program has deferred some planned functionality until after launch, and program officials acknowledge that they may defer more.

Delays in Key GOES-R Program Milestones

Delays in Key GOES-R Program Milestones

NOAA and its contractors have implemented a defect management process as part of their overall testing approach that allows them to identify, assess, track, resolve, and report on defects. However, shortfalls remain in how defects are analyzed and reported. For example, contractors manage, track, and report defects differently due to a lack of guidance from NOAA. Without consistency among contractors, it is difficult for management to effectively prioritize and oversee defect handling. In addition, more than 800 defects in key program components remained unresolved. Until the program makes progress in addressing these defects, it may not have a complete picture of remaining issues and faces an increased risk of further delays to the GOES-R launch date.

As the GOES-R program approaches its expected launch date of March 2016, it faces a potential gap of more than a year during which an on-orbit backup satellite would not be available. This means that if an operational satellite experiences a problem, there could be a gap in GOES coverage. NOAA has improved its plan to mitigate gaps in satellite coverage. However, the revised plan does not include steps for mitigating a delayed launch, or details on potential impacts and minimum performance levels should a gap occur. Until these shortfalls are addressed, NOAA management cannot fully assess all gap mitigation strategies, which in turn could hinder the ability of meteorologists to observe and report on severe weather conditions.

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, 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 progress on program schedule, cost, and functionality; (2) assess efforts to identify and address issues discovered during integration and testing; and (3) evaluate the likelihood of a gap in satellite coverage and actions to prevent or mitigate such a gap. To do so, GAO analyzed program and contractor data, earned value data information, and defect reports, compared both defect management policies and contingency plans to best practices by leading organizations, and interviewed officials at NOAA and NASA.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is recommending that NOAA address shortfalls in its defect management approach, reduce the number of open high-priority defects, and add information to its satellite contingency plan. NOAA concurred with GAO's recommendations and identified steps it plans to take to implement them.

For more information, contact Dave Powner at (202) 512-9286 or pownerd@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The agency agreed with this recommendation, and stated that the GOES-R program would investigate inconsistencies in its earned value management (EVM) data and provide an appropriate corrective action plan. However, NOAA has not yet shown how prior inconsistences with EVM data have been addressed or that EVM data is no longer inconsistent. We will continue to monitor agency actions on 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 investigate and address inconsistencies totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in monthly earned value data reporting for the Geostationary Lightning Mapper and Advanced Baseline Imager instruments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation. Agency officials stated that contractors were required to report defects, that NOAA holds recurring meetings at which defects are addressed, and that the agency can place a hold or put liens against contractors if defects are not addressed. However, NOAA did not provide evidence that it established guidance on defect definitions, what defect metrics should be collected and reported, and how to establish a defect's priority or severity. We will continue to monitor agency actions on 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 address shortfalls in defect management identified in this report, including the lack of clear guidance on defect definitions, what defect metrics should be collected and reported, and how to establish a defect's priority or severity.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The agency agreed with this recommendation, and stated that the GOES-R program reviews defects on a bi-weekly basis, is actively working to reduce the number of unresolved defects through the remainder of its integration and testing phase. However, the program has not provided documentation that demonstrates the review process, or evidence that the number of defects is declining over time. We will continue to monitor agency actions on 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 reduce the number of unresolved defects on the GOES ground system and spacecraft.

    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, in addition, because NOAA has not fully implemented our prior recommendation to improve its satellite gap mitigation plan, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to add information to the GOES satellite contingency plan 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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