NOAA responds to IG’s censure

Commerce Department Inspector General’s Office: Poor Management Oversight and Ineffective Incentives

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Senior officials who oversee a complex environmental satellite project say they plan to establish an independent program executive office that will conduct management reviews of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). The multiagency project is now more than $3 billion over budget and 17 months behind schedule.

In response to a draft report from the Commerce Department’s inspector general that is critical of NPOESS, senior leaders at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said they would make additional changes to impose tighter management controls, including revising the project’s incentive fees and assigning responsibility for determining those fees to the independent program executive office. The auditor questioned the objectivity of the fee-determining official, who is also the program director.

“The award fee-determining official and the NPOESS program director are now different individuals,” said Conrad Lautenbacher, undersecretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere. He serves on a multiagency committee of senior officials from NOAA, NASA and the Defense Department who are responsible for overseeing NPOESS.

Lautenbacher said he accepted many of the IG’s criticisms, but he also blamed some of NPOESS’ problems on the project’s unusual governance structure, which spreads oversight responsibility among three agencies, and on the experimental nature of the satellite equipment. NPOESS may carry as many as 13 instruments, including some elements that represent technological advances and require extensive research and development.

NOAA has taken steps to ensure that similar mistakes do not occur with the next satellite project, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites-R, Lautenbacher said. An independent review team will review that project’s baseline, cost, schedule and performance, he said.

John Pike, director of, which monitors space and military programs, said NPOESS might not be in such trouble had senior-level officials at NOAA and DOD paid more attention to the project.

“It almost seemed like they just didn’t want to hear bad news,” he said.

The program’s overambitious plan was also a contributing factor, Pike said. “The thing was badly designed from the first place in that they turned it into a science fair [with] so many new instruments.”

He also said NPOESS seemed to lack a contingency plan for deploying existing sensor technology if delays occurred in obtaining new technology.

Several other federal satellite programs are experiencing major schedule slippages and cost overruns, Pike said, adding that he has not witnessed so many problems in the nearly 30 years that he has monitored such projects.

“The space sector in general seems to have forgotten that this is rocket science,” he said.


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