NOAA Reduces JPSS Costs by $1.6 Billion – How Did They Do It?

NOAA Reduces JPSS Costs by $1.6 Billion – How Did They Do It?

Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank told congressional appropriators on Thursday that the lifecycle cost of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is now $11.3 billion instead of the $12.9 billion the Department told Congress last year.  That’s a remarkable change and in the opposite direction of most space program estimates, begging the question of how they did it.

Blank testified to the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations subcommittee chaired by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) in the morning, and its House counterpart, chaired by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), in the afternoon.

At the time of its FY2013 budget request in February 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is part of the Department of Commerce (DOC), said the life-cycle cost through 2028 was $12.9 billion, up from $11.9 billion the previous year because it added four more years of operations.  The increase was sharply criticized by Mikulski, who continues to chair the subcommittee in this Congress and also has ascended to chair the full appropriations committee.

Exasperated by cost growth in NOAA satellite programs, Mikulski recommended last year that the programs be transferred to NASA.  She said at Thursday’s hearing on the FY2014 budget request for DOC, however, that she has backed off that stance because Blank convinced her that recent management changes would fix the problems.  Still, Mikulski said, NOAA’s satellite programs are “on probation” in terms of which agency manages them, especially since Blank will not be there to ensure the management changes are implemented.  Blank is leaving the Obama Administration at the end of May.

In the final Continuing Resolution for FY2013, enacted last month, appropriators made clear that $11.9 billion was the maximum amount they would approve for JPSS.  Blank’s new estimate of $11.3 billion fits within that envelope, but opens the question of how the program was able to drop the cost so quickly. She said she is confident the program can be executed for that cost as long as it receives the requested funding.  For FY2014, NOAA is requesting $824 million.

DOC’s budget documentation does not provide explicit details on how the cost reduction was achieved, but one change is apparent and another can be surmised.  First, NOAA transferred responsibility for three climate sensors to NASA.   Second, it created a new budget line item for a free-flyer that had been included in the JPSS estimate and presumably no longer is included the estimate.

JPSS is NOAA’s part of the restructured National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program.  Last year, the $12.9 billion estimate included four satellites.   Two are mid-sized satellites with several sensors each, but they are not large enough to accommodate all the sensors envisioned for NOAA’s part of NPOESS.  Therefore NOAA decided it needed another two small “free flyers” for the remaining sensors.  The four spacecraft, including launch and operation, were in the $12.9 lifecycle cost estimate along with NOAA’s roughly $4 billion sunk costs in NPOESS.

Now NASA will be responsible for funding three climate sensors.   NASA and NOAA share responsibility for climate measurements and monitoring, but NOAA’s primary mission in this area is weather forecasting as the congressional appropriators reminded NOAA in the final FY2013 CR.  Transferring the sensors to NASA allows NOAA to focus on weather and reduces its financial load, but that burden is simply shifted to NASA.  

Mike Freilich, Director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, told the NASA Advisory Council’s Earth Science Subcommittee on Thursday that the FY2014 budget request for his office includes a one-time $40 million increase to pay for them.  They are the Clouds and Earth Radiant Energy System (CERES), the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite-Limb (OMPS-Limb) and the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS).   NASA discusses them in the “Decadal Survey Missions” section of its Earth Science budget request, but a breakout of how much of that budget line item is for the climate sensors is not provided.  The climate sensors are one of three new responsibilities assigned to NASA and Freilich expressed concern about the long term impact of adding so much content to his program if adequate resources are not provided over the long term.  The FY2014 budget request calls for NASA to also pay more for refurbishing the Deep Space Climate Observatory space weather satellite and take the lead in designing and developing a follow-on to Landsat 8, which at one time was envisioned for the U.S. Geological Survey, which operates the Landsat satellites).

As for the two free-flyers NOAA was planning, its budget now provides only for one and it now has its own budget line, called Polar Free Flyer, separate from JPSS and ostensibly no longer included in the JPSS life cycle cost estimate.

Blank told Wolf’s subcommittee that $11.3 billion is the “revised and final” estimate in her verbal testimony (at minute 01:15:30), but her written statement says “We are currently in the process of completing an Independent Cost Estimate (ICE) for JPSS with options to reduce scope, risk, and lifecycle cost.”

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