NOAA Claims Significant Cost Reduction for Polar Weather Satellites

NOAA Claims Significant Cost Reduction for Polar Weather Satellites

NOAA says a reassessment of its Polar Follow On (PFO) weather satellite program resulted in an almost 10 percent savings in life cycle costs compared to a 2016 estimate.  The PFO program funds the third and fourth Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) spacecraft that are planned for launch in FY2026 and FY2031.

The JPSS program is the follow-on to NOAA’s long-standing Polar Operational Environmental Satellite (POES) series.  The final POES, designated NOAA-19 once in orbit, was launched in 2009.  The first JPSS, now NOAA-20, was launched in 2017.  JPSS-2 is scheduled for launch in March 2022.

High costs have bedeviled NOAA’s satellite systems for years.  JPSS, in fact, is the successor to the DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program cancelled by the Obama Administration in 2010 after more than a decade of cost overruns and schedule delays. NPOESS was based on the premise that it would be cheaper to have a single satellite system serving military and civil users instead of separate DOD and NOAA systems, but the difficulty of managing the combined program across the two agencies proved insurmountable.  NASA’s role was technology development and its contribution, now named Suomi-NPP, is the only satellite that actually was built and its funding was outside the NPOESS program. It was put into operational service to bridge between POES and JPSS.

DOD and NOAA returned to operating separate systems.  JPSS is NOAA’s.

NOAA initially estimated the cost of JPSS at $12.9 billion for four satellites and associated ground systems plus $4 billion in sunk costs in NPOESS.  Congress balked at the price tag and in 2013 the Department of Commerce (DOC), NOAA’s parent, announced a significant cost reduction.  It was achieved in part by splitting the JPSS program in half. The budget line item labeled JPSS would pay for the first two satellites and a separate line item, now called Polar Follow On (PFO), would fund the other two.  Congress approved the PFO program in 2016.  JPSS and PFO were recently merged into a single budget line item, Polar Weather Satellites (PWS).

In a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) yesterday, Acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs said a new assessment of the PFO program resulted in a savings of $735 million, 9.7 percent less than the 2016 estimate. The new estimate for the period FY2016-FY2038, covering development, launch, and operations of the two satellites, is $6,837.9 million compared to the original $7,573.0 million.

Jacobs attributed the savings to five factors:

Although cost savings due to a more competitive launch services market is listed as one of the factors, a NOAA spokesperson told that launch vehicles have not been procured for the launches yet.  JPSS-1 was launched on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II. JPSS-2 will use a ULA Atlas V.  NASA procures the satellites and launch vehicles on NOAA’s behalf and is reimbursed by NOAA.

Deputy Secretary of Commerce Karen Dunn Kelley is the Milestone Decision Authority for the Department of Commerce and chair of the Milestone Review Board.  In a memorandum attached to Jacobs’ letter, she lists three factors that achieved the cost reduction.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma)

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), the top Republican on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, applauded NOAA and Jacobs, specifically, for managing the program in a “cost effective manner.”

“I want to applaud NOAA, NESDIS, and the JPSS Program Office for their tremendous work to deliver critical long-term weather and climate observations. I also want to thank Dr. Neil Jacobs for his leadership during this time. Not only are Dr. Jacobs and NOAA producing high-quality data and forecasts, but they are also doing it in a cost-effective manner and saving taxpayers $735 million dollars. With an above-average Atlantic hurricane season projected this year, I am thankful NOAA has world-class satellites providing data for their models.”

Jacobs’ nomination to be Under Secretary of Commence for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator is pending before the Senate.  NOAA has not had a permanent Administrator since the Trump Administration began. Jacobs was confirmed as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction in February 2018 and has been acting Administrator of NOAA since February 2019.

Jacobs’ role in Sharpiegate is controversial and it is not clear if it will affect his chances of confirmation. This news of cost savings in the PFO program may bolster the case for his supporters.

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