NOAA turns to defense contractors

Some leading defense contractors who also moonlight for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been contributing to ballooning budgets and schedule delays on satellite projects for almost a decade. Some people hope that NOAA has learned from its mistakes and will prevent such blunders from affecting a new weather satellite program, industry observers say.

NOAA has awarded Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Boeing Satellite Systems and Northrop Grumman Space Technology 22-month, $30 million contracts to study risk reduction and system designs for the agency's next generation of weather satellites. The three vendors are competing against one another to develop the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R), a series of satellites that will improve weather forecasting and coastal observations.

After the three studies are complete, NOAA will solicit proposals for GOES-R production. The agency expects to launch the satellites by 2012. The preliminary studies, announced last month, will determine the request for proposals' provisions, including the number of satellites. NOAA plans to issue an RFP by early 2007 and award a contract later that year.

GOES-R will collect about 50 times more data than current weather satellites do, transmit pictures 40 times quicker and scan the globe five times as fast. Weather watchers, such as TV meteorologists, aviators and government agencies, use GOES data to estimate rainfall and snowfall accumulations and issue severe weather warnings, among other things.

For instance, GOES satellites transmitted images of Hurricane Katrina every five minutes from Aug. 26 to Aug. 30. GOES-R will have the power to more precisely identify communities in the hurricane's path and give meteorologists more time to issue watches and warnings, which will give people more time to take cover. Forecasters will also have sharper analyses of atmospheric winds, which could produce better numerical models.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, which monitors space and military programs, said NOAA issued the three companies the same assignment to consider different approaches to a challenge. This is standard procedure, he said. Unfortunately, it doesn't address the cost overruns and schedule slips that have plagued federal space projects for nearly a decade.

"What they are hoping for is that they'll be able to evaluate these three different proposals and try to understand what the degree of realism is in the different proposals," Pike said. "The concern is that the competition for the program will be so intense that the three companies will just be competing" over which one can offer blue-sky cost savings and milestones.

The three companies vying for the satellite project say they are aware that more is at stake this time and they will not disappoint the government.

Wes Colburn, vice president of Earth Observing Systems and GOES-R program manager at Lockheed Martin, said NOAA is concerned about getting the engineering and risk-reduction strategies upfront, before the agency acquires a system.

"They are paying a lot more attention for this GOES series than they have in the past to meet schedule and cost goals," he said.

No stranger to the friendly skies

The defense industry has dabbled in space for decades. Helping the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration develop new weather satellites is just another project in a thick portfolio.

  • Boeing, a veteran of the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program, designed one of the first geosynchronous satellites capable of meteorological observations, launched in 1966. Now, the company is working on three new NOAA satellites, bringing the total number of Boeing-built satellites to eight.
  • Likewise, Lockheed Martin has been developing environmental satellites since the Space Age began. The company has designed and constructed Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellites (POES) for weather and defense monitoring. POES contributes to long-term outlooks, whereas GOES measures current conditions. Lockheed Martin's Space Systems division accounted for about one-sixth of the company's business in 2004.
  • Northrop Grumman also has experience in crafting Earth observation systems. The company served as the prime contractor for NASA's Aqua and Aura Earth Observing System satellites in the mid-1990s and then led the tri-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System contract. Space technology is the company's smallest sector.

-- Aliya Sternstein

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