Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites:

Restructuring Is Under Way, but Technical Challenges and Risks Remain

GAO-07-498: Published: Apr 27, 2007. Publicly Released: Jun 7, 2007.

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The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is a tri-agency acquisition--managed by the Departments of Commerce and Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration--which experienced escalating costs, schedule delays, and technical difficulties. These factors led to a June 2006 decision to restructure the program thereby decreasing the program's complexity, increasing its estimated cost to $12.5 billion, and delaying the first two satellites by 3 to 5 years. GAO was asked to (1) assess progress in restructuring the acquisition, (2) evaluate progress in establishing an effective management structure, (3) assess the reliability of the cost and schedule estimate, and (4) identify the status and key risks facing the program's major segments. To do so, GAO analyzed program and contractor data, attended program reviews, and interviewed program officials

The NPOESS program office has made progress in restructuring the acquisition by establishing and implementing interim program plans guiding the contractors' work activities in 2006 and 2007; however, important tasks leading up to finalizing contract changes remain to be completed. Executive approvals of key acquisition documents are about 6 months late--due in part to the complexity of navigating three agencies' approval processes. Delays in finalizing these documents could hinder plans to complete contract negotiations by July 2007 and could keep the program from moving forward in fiscal year 2008 with a new program baseline. The program office has also made progress in establishing an effective management structure by adopting a new organizational framework with increased oversight from program executives and by instituting more frequent and rigorous program reviews; however, plans to reassign the recently appointed Program Executive Officer will likely increase the program's risks. Additionally, the program lacks a process and plan for identifying and filling staffing shortages, which has led to delays in key activities such as cost estimating and contract revisions. Until this process is in place the NPOESS program faces increased risk of further delays. The methodology supporting a June 2006 independent cost estimate with the expectation of initial satellite launch in January 2013 was reliable, but recent events could increase program costs and delay schedules. Specifically, the program continues to experience technical problems on key sensors and program costs will likely be adjusted during upcoming negotiations on contract changes. A new baseline cost and schedule reflecting these factors is expected by July 2007. Development and testing of major NPOESS segments--including key sensors and ground systems--are under way, but significant risks remain. For example, while work continues on key sensors, two of them experienced significant problems and are considered high risk. Additionally, while progress has been made in reducing delays in the data processing system, work remains in refining the algorithms needed to translate sensor observations into useable weather products. Given the tight time frames for completing this work, it will be important for program officials and executives to continue to provide close oversight of milestones and risks.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should direct the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere to ensure that NPOESS program authorities develop and implement a written process for identifying and addressing human capital needs and for streamlining how the program handles the three different agencies' administrative procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation and developed a Human Capital Management Plan for the NPOESS program. This plan identifies the program's human capital needs and streamlines how the program handles the three different agencies' administrative procedures. Specifically, the plan streamlines the hiring process by clarifying the three agencies policies and identifying a single point of responsibility for its hiring program. The program has since filled many of its staffing needs.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Air Force to delay reassigning the recently appointed Program Executive Officer until all sensors have been delivered to the NPOESS Preparatory Program; these deliveries are currently scheduled to occur by July 2008.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Air Force recently transferred the Program Executive Officer to another program, noting that the System Program Director directly responsible for the satellite acquisition program was assigned to the program for a four year tour of duty, which includes the delivery of the sensors for the NPOESS Preparatory Program satellite.

    Recommendation: Because of the importance of effectively managing the NPOESS program to ensure that there are no gaps in the continuity of critical weather and environmental observations, the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should ensure that the responsible executives within their respective organizations approve key acquisition documents, including the memorandum of agreement among the three agencies, the system engineering plan, the test and evaluation master plan, and the acquisition strategy, as quickly as possible but no later than April 30, 2007.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency did not meet our recommended date, but did complete the recommended action. The Department of Defense extended the deadlines for many of the key acquisition documents. Subsequently, the appropriate agency officials approved all of the acquisition documents. The final document was approved in December 2008.

    Recommendation: Because of the importance of effectively managing the NPOESS program to ensure that there are no gaps in the continuity of critical weather and environmental observations, the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should ensure that the responsible executives within their respective organizations approve key acquisition documents, including the memorandum of agreement among the three agencies, the system engineering plan, the test and evaluation master plan, and the acquisition strategy, as quickly as possible but no later than April 30, 2007.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency did not meet our recommended date, but did complete the recommended action. Specifically, the Department extended the deadlines for many of the key acquisition documents. Subsequently, the appropriate agency officials approved all of the acquisition documents. The final document was approved in December 2008.

    Recommendation: Because of the importance of effectively managing the NPOESS program to ensure that there are no gaps in the continuity of critical weather and environmental observations, the Secretaries of Defense and Commerce and the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should ensure that the responsible executives within their respective organizations approve key acquisition documents, including the memorandum of agreement among the three agencies, the system engineering plan, the test and evaluation master plan, and the acquisition strategy, as quickly as possible but no later than April 30, 2007.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency did not meet our recommended date, but did complete the recommended action. The Department of Defense extended the deadlines for many of the key acquisition documents. Subsequently, the appropriate agency officials approved all of the acquisition documents. The final document was approved in December 2008.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should establish a plan for immediately filling needed positions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation and has taken action to ensure that filling open positions is its highest priority. By July 2, 2007, program officials reported that the many of the positions open at the time of our recommendation had been filled, and they changed the risk level for its staffing from medium to low risk. Subsequently, the program office maintained its staffing level as a low risk issue.

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