GAO takes weather satellite program off watch list

Space

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Government Accountability Office has taken a weather satellite program off a list of high-risk projects it is monitoring, but is heightening its concerns about NASA acquisition management.

In a March 6 report, timed to testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the GAO announced it was taking the issue of “mitigating gaps in weather satellite data” off its list of about 35 high-risk topics across the federal government it was monitoring. The topic, added to the list in 2013, was one of two removed from the list since its last update in 2017. 

The GAO, in its report, credited work by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense to take steps to mitigate any gaps in data from polar-orbiting weather satellites. The two agencies “have made significant progress in establishing and implementing plans to mitigate potential gaps in weather satellite data,” the GAO concluded.

The major development for NOAA was the launch of the long-delayed first Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft, now called NOAA-20, in late 2017. Its successful launch eased concerns about a potential gap in polar satellite weather data.

The Defense Department, meanwhile, is addressing its own potential weather data gap with the development of the Weather System Follow-on — Microwave spacecraft. The Air Force awarded a contract to Ball Aerospace for that satellite for a 2022 launch. The report also cited ongoing discussions between the Air Force and NOAA about moving a spare NOAA geostationary weather satellite over the Indian Ocean region to fill a gap in Defense Department needs there.

Much of the weather gap concerns were the long-term aftermath of the failed National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program, which attempted to combine separate NOAA and Defense Department polar-orbiting weather satellite programs. The Obama administration cancelled NPOESS in 2010 after years of delays and cost overruns, with NOAA and the Air Force then pursuing separate programs.

In March 7 statement to NOAA staff, Steven Volz, assistant administrator for satellite and information services, thanked them for working to “right the ship” through the successful launch of NOAA-20 as well as two next-generation geostationary orbit satellites.

“We have maintained our commitment to continuity, today and into the future, and earned our position as the trusted source of environmental data,” he said. “The U.S. no longer faces the grim prospect of satellite data gaps in the polar orbit, which looked like a real possibility in 2011 because of projected cost overruns and launch uncertainty.”

While the GAO took weather satellite programs off its high-risk list, it enhanced scrutiny of NASA’s acquisition management. That issue, which has been on the list since 1990, was one of three on the list that trended down from 2017 because of what the GAO saw as growing problems with delays and cost growth.

“Following several years of continuing a generally positive trend of limiting cost growth and schedule delays for its portfolio of major projects, we found that NASA’s average launch delay increased from 7 to 12 months between May 2017 and May 2018,” the GAO report stated. “NASA is at risk for continued cost growth and schedule delays in its portfolio of major projects.”

The GAO said that NASA had regressed in two areas, leadership commitment and monitoring. It cited a lack of transparency and information from the agency on the cost and schedule performance of major programs, as well as “leadership approval of risky programmatic decisions for complex major projects,” such as insufficient reserves and aggressive schedules.

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