Aerospace Corp. Paints Picture of NPOESS Program Doomed From the Start

Aerospace Corp. Paints Picture of NPOESS Program Doomed From the Start

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) was doomed to failure according to a set of lessons learned identified by the Aerospace Corporation. Its December 2010 report to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was posted on NOAA’s website today.

Historically, NOAA and DOD operated separate civil and military polar-orbiting weather satellite systems; NOAA also operates a geostationary weather satellite system. The decision to pursue a “converged” polar-orbiting system to meet both NOAA and DOD requirements was made in 1994 by the Clinton Administration. The Powerpoint briefing by the Aerospace Corporation cites Vice President Al Gore and then-NOAA Administrator James Baker as the architects of the “convergence” plan that became NPOESS. It was a tri-agency partnership among NOAA, DOD and NASA, with NASA serving in a technoiogy development capacity.

The Obama White House dissolved the NPOESS partnership in February 2010 after years of cost growth and schedule slippage. The program was restructured and DOD and NOAA now are returning to building separate systems. NASA is the acquisition agent for NOAA’s satellites and its NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) spacecraft, originally designed as a technology testbed for NPOESS sensors, will be repurposed as an operational satellite for NOAA when it is launched later this year. Congress is still debating funding the new NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System and DOD’s Defense Weather Satellite System as part of the FY2011 budget process.

The Aerospace Corporation pulled no punches in its findings about what went wrong. The findings state —

  • Chronic unrealistic cost estimation tainted the budget process, dictated the acquisition strategy, distorted management decisions, and set the program up for overruns
  • Incomplete, inaccurate assertions of heritage contributed to cost estimation problems and led to significantly optimistic assessments of technical and programmatic risk
  • The Government and the prime contractor failed to establish clear, detailed supplier performance expectations and appropriate incentives
  • Multiple factors constrained and eventually eliminated the SPD’s authority to make performance trades
  • From the start, the mission priorities of the key Convergence stakeholders were divergent. The formulation of the NPP mission created a “nested”, interagency partnership with conflicting risk reduction and climate monitoring mission objectives. The lack of synergy in these partnerships created significant tension in program cost, schedule and performance.
  • The acquisition strategy contained two major flaws, including assumption of the future use of the capability trade space to maintain cost and schedule baselines, and an ill-conceived interagency risk reduction mission that co-mingled the DoD and NASA acquisition paradigms
  • Lack of a sufficent number of talented, sufficiently experienced staff appropriate to the complexity and scope of the acquisition plagued the program and were [sic] a root cause of program execution problems
  • Outside events and pressures impinged on the NPOESS program as it co-evolved with its context, complicating an already difficult program management environment with significant consequences
  • Program management decisions were ill-informed and/or distorted by a combination of factors that worked to divert attention from the core, priority mission requirements. The factors included:
    • politically pressured baseline cost constraints
    • a flawed acquisition strategy
    • cost estimation pathologies
    • dysfunction in the governance structure
    • weak staff support
    • subjective and inaccurate assessment of, and credit for, instrument heritage
    • lack of agility in adapting to the changing program context
    • weak/ineffective oversight of contractor efforts
    • constraints on the capability trade space along with the authority to utilize it

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