July 26, 2009

Obama Grants $100 Million For Weather Satellites

A weather satellite program that has been scrutinized as being poorly run and plagued with delays and cost escalation is now set to receive $100 million more in funding from the Obama administration.

The additional money has been requested for fiscal year 2010 for the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).

NPOESS is the United States' next-generation satellite system that will monitor the Earth's weather, atmosphere, oceans, land, and near-space environment. The satellites will use proven technologies and sensors that are currently under operational-prototyping by NASA.

According to a June 17 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the monetary boost would increase the program's 2010 spending to $382 million despite the fact that the satellites are at least $8 billion over budget, and the launch of the first satellite is delayed at least by five years.

Author of the GAO report David Powner called the satellite project "a poster child for mismanagement". He further expressed, "It's clearly up there as one of the most troubled programs that we've looked at."

Last month, both the GAO and an independent review team of former NASA and military officials suggested a major overhaul for the satellite program to stave off further cost overruns and delays. Action has yet been taken, which has increased the frustration of some in Congress.

A June 24 Senate Appropriations Committee report stated that the "administration needs to disengage from its autopilot management style" and "start making responsible decisions" on the satellite program.

"You don't need to be a rocket scientist to know that our national polar satellite program is on a disastrous path, and unless we make changes immediately, the program will fail," Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md, chairwoman of the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the satellite program, said in an e-mail.

The committee approved the administration's request for extra money, regardless of warnings and complaints, but the final approval has not yet been given by Congress.

Action will soon be taken, according to administration officials. Spokesman Scott Smullen of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the satellite program with the Defense Department and NASA, said changes "are required immediately".

He says that throughout the summer, the necessary decisions will be made and funding will be increased to ensure that the satellites do not encounter further delays.

The managers of the satellite program enlisted an independent review team that warned that as the older satellites are retired, the program's woes could cause a three- to five-year gap in the availability of climate data.

Both the review team and the GAO agree that part of the problem is that the program is co-funded by agencies with differing needs. The Defense Department and the oceanic administration are managing the problem along with NASA, which is resulting in red tape and disunity.

Powner claims that more money would be required to ensure that the satellites are eventually launched, and that the administration must determine how the program will be managed.

"The more we go on with indecision," he says, the more "likely it will result in additional cost increases and schedule delays."


Image Caption: Artists concept of NPOESS satellite. (Credit: NOAA)


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