Gov’t Report: NOAA’s Mismanaged Satellite Programs To Cost Taxpayers $22 Billion


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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Government auditors slammed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Thursday for spending billions of dollars on critical satellite systems that have suffered huge delays and technical challenges.

The Government Accountability Office says NOAA environmental satellite systems are “critical to the United States’ ability to maintain the continuity of data required for weather forecasting.” NOAA was supposed to have launched $10.9 billion Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R back March 2016, but now the satellite system will launch months later than was planned.

GAO found the “the decision to delay the launch was due to poor schedule performance over the last few years (losing more than 10 days a month on average), recent technical issues with key components, and little schedule margin as the program entered integration testing.”

Auditors noted the “October 2016 launch date may also be delayed if additional technical challenges arise or if schedule performance remains poor.”

But that’s not all. NOAA’s also having problems with its $11.3 billion Joint Polar Satellite System program that’s scheduled to launch in March 2017. GAO found that while NOAA is making progress on the project it “has experienced technical issues that have affected internal schedule deadlines.”

These technical issues include “an issue with debris in an instrument’s subsystem that delayed its delivery by approximately 8 months, and faces key risks in the remainder of development.”

NOAA signed contracts to build the GOES-R system in 2012 based on a $1.4 billion design from Lockheed Martin, but the project’s price tag has grown dramatically — now closing in on $11 billion over the lifetime of the project.

A Commerce Department inspector general report from June found that NOAA’s GOES-R satellite system was supposed to launch in October 2014, but delays could leave “GOES on-orbit constellation without a backup satellite for 29 months out of a 33-month period from April 2015 to January 2018.”

NOAA satellites are important tools for weather forecasters and climate monitoring, and government agencies are in the midst of replacing older satellites that are at the end of their lifespans.

Agencies, however, have had huge problems getting satellites ready for launch in the coming years, and auditors have taken notice. GAO notes “these programs have troubled legacies of cost increases, missed milestones, technical problems, and management challenges that have resulted in reduced functionality and major delays to planned launch dates over time.”

GAO says “a polar satellite data gap would result in less accurate and timely weather forecasts and warnings of extreme events, such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods.” This could place “lives, property, and our nation’s critical infrastructures in danger.”

GAO found in January that NOAA’s polar satellite programs cost increased $222 million since 2013 — a rate of growth GAO found to be unsustainable.

Half of this cost increase is “attributable to three main sensors: the Cross Track Infrared Sounder; the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder; and the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite,” reported Space News.

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