Panel slams EOSDIS

Congress last week threatened to pull a major NASA program and transfer it to another agency because of cost overruns, software glitches and substantial delays in the space agency's effort to create what would be the world's largest civilian database.

At a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics last week, a NASA official testified that problems with two software programs this year have significantly delayed the launch of satellites designed to collect data that will be analyzed and stored in the Earth Observing System Data and Information System database. EOSDIS is a core component of NASA's Earth Science Enterprise, formerly called Mission to Planet Earth, a 15-year international research effort to study the Earth's land, oceans, atmosphere and ice to improve weather forecasts and the ability to predict how climate will change.

These delays, along with substantial cost overruns, have angered members of Congress, causing some to question NASA's ability to bring the project to fruition.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) chided NASA officials for "stumbling along with ever-increasing cost and receding deadlines" and "clinging to overpriced failures.

"NASA needs a new acquisition system that simultaneously considers new ways of doing business," Rohrabacher said. "The question is not whether we should study the environment. The question is whether the science actually gets done. We're watching."

Rep. David Weldon (R-Fla.) noted that NASA's efforts in collecting this type of data spanned only nine years, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been collecting this type of data for more than 30 years.

"This program should not be under the jurisdiction of NASA," Weldon said. "This program should be under the guidance and supervision of another agency, such as the National Academy of Sciences or NOAA."

The core system of EOSDIS includes the Flight Operations Segment (FOS) and the Science Data Processing System (SDPS). To develop these systems, NASA in 1993 awarded a 10-year, $765 million contract to Hughes Electronics Corp., which recently was acquired by Raytheon Information Systems Co.

In March, NASA officials discovered that the FOS, which would provide command and control for a satellite scheduled for launch in June and other subsequent satellites, had failed a critical system test [FCW, April 20]. Because of that failure, NASA delayed the launch of the Earth Observing Spacecraft AM-1 until May 1999.

The development of SDPS, which will provide critical launch support to AM-1 and other satellites, also has been plagued by significant delays and cost overruns, said Ghassem Asrar, associate administrator of NASA's Earth Science Enterprise. These delays have been caused by the high turnover rate of contracted information technology programmers and the complexity of the design of the system, he said.

However, Asrar assured the subcommittee that EOSDIS officials are working closely with Raytheon to ensure that the essential functions to operate the spacecraft and conduct basic data processing will be in place for the launch. In addition, officials are working to develop a new concept for data management that is geared toward reducing the complexity of EOSDIS so the system will be more flexible, he said.

Patrick O'Connell, Raytheon's vice president and general manager of enterprise management systems, said the technical challenges associated with the core system of EOSDIS were "simply more difficult than expected."

Rapidly changing technology— associated with the introduction of the World Wide Web and the massive growth of commercial off-the-shelf products— combined with high worker turnover rates were to blame for the software problems, he said. He noted, however, that Raytheon is working aggressively with NASA to overcome these problems. Raytheon has installed a new management team and added new processes to the software work.

By late October, a detailed report on the IT systems required to launch AM-1 and subsequent satellites will be available for congressional review. The report may provide details about additional costs needed to fund the system as it was originally envisioned or outline a reduction of the capabilities that will be developed in EOSDIS.

"We're making every effort not to reduce the capability of the system," Asrar said. "We may have to give up some of the requirements in order to stay within cost."

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