Price of Nation’s Newest Weather Satellites Soar – Its Future is Cloudy
Artist’s rendition of NPOESS – the next generation of weather satellites. (Photo Courtesy of: NOAA)
The nation’s ability to forecast weather is in jeopardy as existing satellites get older and the replacements are over-budget and under-performing. Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman reports.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is an encore edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The first weather satellites were launched forty years ago. Today the images they send back from space of earth’s weather are a routine part of life. Thanks to these sophisticated satellites loaded with high tech sensors, it’s now possible to predict the weather with great accuracy. But a program to build the nation’s next generation of weather satellites is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. And as Living On Earth’s Bruce Gellerman reports, the crisis could jeopardize our ability to forecast the weather.
GELLERMAN: It started with re-inventing government. In 1994, Bill Clinton signed a presidential directive designed to change the way the United States purchased weather satellites. Until then NASA, the Air Force, and NOAA, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, each designed, purchased and ran its own weather satellite program. Clinton’s directive merged the three into one and, to manage it, they created a special position at NOAA. And in an unusual move, the government offered the builders of the satellites and their senior executives generous incentives to keep the project on budget and on schedule.
Amy Butler, military editor at Aviation Week and Space Technology, says the Clinton administration predicted the new way of buying satellites would save taxpayers nearly two billion dollars.
BUTLER: There was this faster, better, cheaper idea out there. The government basically said we don’t have as much money to spend but we still want to have the highest technology and the best spacecraft, so industry, come back to us and tell us what you can conjure up in your crystal ball.
GELLERMAN: They came up with NPOESS, the National Polar Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System.
[ANIMATION: "NPOESS…next century…"]
[ANIMATION: the instruments….to our future…]
GELLERMAN: NPOESS state-of-the-art sensors would make five-day weather forecasts as accurate as our current three-day predictions. In fact, with NPOESS, meteorologists could make not just forecasts but "nowcasts." The satellite’s high-speed communication links would give scientists on the ground almost instant access to data gathered in space.
The defense department also had high hopes for NPOESS. It meant that instead of just coping with the weather, military planners could anticipate and exploit it for tactical advantage. Critical to this mission was an advanced sensor called VIIRS, an infrared device designed to peer through clouds day and night, scanning the earth and oceans. As this promotional video explains, VIIRS promised to make it possible to more accurately predict when and where hurricanes hit.
GELLERMAN: But it turns out building weather satellites and sensors is rocket science.
GELLERMAN: While Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor of NPOESS, Raytheon is the subcontractor responsible for building the billion-dollar VIIRS sensor. Raytheon engineers had experience building a similar instrument and expected few problems with VIIRS. But by 2004 it became obvious the company had vastly underestimated the task. The sensor was too heavy. Its cooling system failed. There were electronic interference problems. The staff was fired and replaced.
The government project manager began calling VIIRS ‘our problem child.’ By mid-2005, Congress took notice. That's when lawmakers were notified that delays in the VIIRS sensor were stalling the entire weather satellite program. But the real surprise came when members of the House Science Committee were briefed last fall. Republican Chairman Sherwood Boehlert says lawmakers got a heavy dose of satellite sticker shock.
BOEHLERT: There are a lot of reasons to be shocked at this stage of the proceedings. That is shocking to me in my official capacity. It is shocking to me as a taxpayer.
GELLERMAN: NPOESS was supposed to cost six and a half billion dollars, but by last summer the price tag had risen to eight billion dollars. By December it soared. The Department of Defense estimated it would cost nearly fourteen billion dollars. Congressman Boehlert says that’s more than three times the annual budget of NOAA, the agency that’s in charge of the weather satellite program.
BOEHLERT: But the fact of the matter is there were all sorts of warning signs along the way that things were getting somewhat out of control, and then finally it spun almost completely out of control.
GELLERMAN: Both Northrop Grumman and Raytheon refused repeated requests for on-the-record interviews about their satellite contracts. Northrop Grumman did initiate a series of so-called ‘Deep Dive’ investigations of the program and its subcontractors, yet, inexplicably, at the same time it was giving Raytheon an award for being on budget and on time.
Congress also investigated, and so did NOAA's Inspector General, Johnnie Frazier. Frazier focused on the money trail. He discovered that while the government's project manager, John Cunningham, was well aware of the growing problems, he continued to pay Grumman $124 million dollars in incentive awards. That's nearly all of what Grumman would have earned had it actually been on budget and on schedule. Frazier testified before Congress in May:
FRAZIER: That fee is intended to produce excellence, it’s intended to encourage performance. If I give you 84 percent of the fee when you have a horrible track record, what incentive do you have to try to do better? I think almost none.
GELLERMAN: Federal investigators also discovered that senior government officials who bore ultimate responsibility for NPOESS had met only twice in one and a half years while the program was careening out of control. One of those senior officials in charge was NOAA Administrator Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher. Lautenbacher refused to meet with the Inspector General, Johnnie Frazier, but he did testify before Congress.
LAUTENBACHER: I have agreed that we’ve learned the lessons that Johnny has talked about. This is a difficult program to manage, because it has three agencies and it has complexities involved technically, which are very, very challenging. Remember I’m the head of an agency, so I’ve got lots of people and lots of problems and lots of programs that all need help. This is a top priority and I spend a lot of time on this one, but there’s only so much that I can absorb and understand.
GELLERMAN: Neither Republicans nor Democrats were buying his explanation. Heads began to roll. The NPOESS program director was fired, Raytheon and Grumman replaced senior officials, so did the Air Force. And after hearing Lautenbacher's testimony, ranking Democrat Bart Gordon was almost speechless, but he made it clear he wanted the admiral to go, too.
GORDON: You know, you’re an admiral. You know, I mean, that is, you know, I mean, in sum, this is just embarrassing. I just simply can’t understand it. I would be embarrassed to be in your situation and not try to do more. And not to even meet, to get more information, it just gives me great concern.
GELLERMAN: Now when military contracts rise more than 25 percent over their original bids it triggers a mandatory review by the Department of Defense. If military officials found the weather satellite system wasn't necessary for national security, they could kill it. Congressman Sherwood Boehlert quoted Woody Allen to characterize the situation.
BOEHLERT: We’ve arrived at the crossroads. One road leads to hopelessness and despair, the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose wisely.
GELLERMAN: After an intense review, the Pentagon chose to keep NPOESS alive. Military officials concluded the weather satellite program was essential to national security. But it cut the program dramatically. The first launch date has been pushed back five years to 2013, and now the government plans to buy not six satellites, but just four. And the price tag? It's almost double the original estimate.
In addition, five instruments that had been planned will be eliminated, including those that were to help track climate change. However, VIIRS, the infrared sensor that was responsible for most of the cost overruns and delays, was not cut. It will be built. But reporter Amy Butler of Aviation Week and Space Technology doubts that, even with these changes, this is the end of the weather satellite's problems.
BUTLER: I've seen the government say many times, this is final, we know what we're doing, we know the root cause of the problem and we know how to fix it. And a year or two later, they're kind of back up on the Hill, their head held low, their tail tucked under, and they say, ‘well, we got another billion dollar problem, can you help us out with that?’
CURWOOD: Bruce Gellerman joins me now to talk about more of this, and in particular Bruce, I want to ask you, the military can’t be very happy about having to look to the Europeans for some this information.
GELLERMAN: That’s precisely right, but you know Steve, it’s not just our weather satellites system that’s in serious trouble, but our entire constellation of orbiters: the spysats, communication, navigation, you name it. They’re mostly from the Cold War era, and the government is now in the process of replacing them all, but all of them have a problem. I recently spoke with defense consultant Loren Thompson from the Lexington Institute.
THOMPSON: One thing that they all have in common is that they’re over budget, and they’re behind schedule. When you see a pattern like that, regardless of who the contractor is, the conclusion you come to is that this must be an endemic problem with the customer, in other words, with the government.
CURWOOD: Okay Bruce, so it’s the government’s fault, maybe government’s just too tough a customer?
GELLERMAN: Well, yeah, but except for Boeing, for these satellite builders - and there are only a few of them – the government is their only customer.
CURWOOD: So you’re saying there’s no competition, and that’s the problem?
GELLERMAN: No, there is competition, it’s tremendous and intense between contractors like Northrop and Raytheon, but I spoke with Jeremy Singer – he’s a reporter with Space News – and he’s investigated this issue, and he says it’s precisely the intense competition that contributes to the problem.
SINGER: You know, one of the other problems has just been very poor cost estimating with satellites, in part driven by the budget constraints that the Pentagon has, and contractors who are effectively incentivized to underbid on the programs, and they would come in with cost estimates that they knew they couldn’t meet. Ultimately the budgets would balloon.
CURWOOD: So what you’re saying is that in other words the government expects too much from the satellites it buys, it’s willing to pay too little, so therefore the defense contractors figure this out, and to win the bids they lowball their estimates but then they come back looking for a lot more.
GELLERMAN: Precisely, and that’s why we’ve got very serious problems with virtually every satellite we’ve got in the sky.
CURWOOD: Living On Earth’s Bruce Gellerman. Thanks Bruce.
GELLERMAN: You’re very welcome.
[MUSIC: Marconi Union "Sleepless" from ‘Distance’ (All Saints Records – 2006)]
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