The United States has just endured one of the worst hurricane seasons on record. Whether you believe it was God’s Will or global warming that wrecked New Orleans, it seems clear that weather patterns are changing. Fortunately, the technology for forecasting weather has improved to a point where we aren’t likely to see a repetition of the 6,000 deaths caused by the Galveston hurricane in 1900. But a different kind of storm — a political storm — has begun to build around plans for a next-generation satellite that would provide better weather coverage for soldiers and civilians. Because the stakes are so high, it’s important to understand precisely what the problem is.
The program bears the numbingly verbose name of “National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System.” Not surprisingly, policymakers prefer to use the acronym NPOESS, which they pronounce “en-pose.” NPOESS was conceived in the 1990s as a successor to Cold War satellites that could deliver more precise environmental information faster — four to five times faster — for military and civilian users. Knowing within minutes rather than hours that a sandstorm is approaching or that ground conditions are soggy can be a life-or-death matter in wartime, just as knowing immediately when a hurricane track shifts can save civilian lives.
NPOESS is being developed jointly by the Defense Department and the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with support from NASA. The original idea was to save money by combining separate military and civilian systems in a single constellation that could offer more comprehensive and timely coverage. But like other satellite competitions in which longtime incumbents were replaced by challengers, NPOESS has begun to experience cost growth and schedule slippage. Although the problems are nowhere near as severe as those seen on the Future Imagery Architecture and Space-Based Infrared System, policymakers have seriously considered canceling the program.
Now comes word that cost increases have breached the 25% threshold above baseline estimates that automatically triggers a search for alternatives under Nunn-McCurdy legislation. So the Pentagon is setting up panels to investigate four options that could result in the whole effort being killed or restructured. Before anything that drastic is contemplated, people need to grasp that the problems aren’t so serious.
First of all, they reside in a handful of sensors rather than in the overall design. Prime contractor Northrop Grumman inherited those sensors when it won the program in 2002, and only later began to realize that some of the suppliers chosen by the government weren’t performing. It has intervened forcefully to fix the problems. Second, the main reason the Nunn-McCurdy threshold was breached was because an oversight panel decided to recalculate the cost using a more conservative 80% probability of staying within budgets, rather than the previously preferred 50% probability. That’s an accounting change, not a technology problem. Third, the ground segment, communications network and flight software for the system are all on track, and approaching completion.
Finally, there is no alternative to NPOESS waiting in the wings that offers equivalent precision, detail and timeliness. So instead of punishing NPOESS for the transgressions of other programs, the Pentagon and NOAA ought to stick with the plan — it’s the best plan they’ve got if they want to avoid a gap in weather coverage early in the next decade.
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