Geostationary Weather Satellites:

Design Progress Made, but Schedule Uncertainty Needs to be Addressed

GAO-12-576: Published: Jun 26, 2012. Publicly Released: Jun 27, 2012.

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What GAO Found

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series (GOES-R) program has made progress by completing its early design milestones and is nearing the end of the design phase for its spacecraft, instrument, and ground system components. While the program continues to make progress, recent technical problems with the instruments and spacecraft, as well as a significant modification to the ground project’s development plan, have delayed the completion of key reviews and led to increased complexity for the development of GOES-R. The technical and programmatic challenges experienced by the flight and ground projects have led to a 19-month delay in completing the program’s preliminary design review. Nevertheless, program officials report that its planned launch date of October 2015 for the first satellite has not changed. While the program reports that approximately $1.2 billion is currently in reserve to manage future delays and cost growth, significant portions of development remain for major components. As a result, the program may not be able to ensure that it has adequate resources to cover ongoing challenges as well as unexpected problems for the remaining development of all four satellites.

The success in management of a large-scale program depends in part on having a reliable schedule that defines, among other things, when work activities and milestone events will occur, how long they will take, and how they are related to one another. To its credit, the program has adopted key scheduling best practices and has recognized certain scheduling weaknesses. It has also recently instituted initiatives to automate its integrated master schedule, correct integration problems among projects, and assess schedule confidence based on risk. However, unresolved schedule deficiencies remain in its integrated master schedule and the contractor schedules that support it, which have contributed to a re-plan of the schedule of the ground system and to the potential for delays to satellite launch dates. The program recently determined that the likelihood of the first satellite meeting its planned October 2015 launch date is 48 percent. Based on this planned launch date, the program reports that there is a 37 percent chance of a gap in the availability of two operational GOES-series satellites, which could result in the need for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to rely on older satellites that are not fully functional. Until its scheduling weaknesses are addressed, it will be more difficult for the program to know whether its planned remaining development is on schedule.

NOAA has established policies and procedures that conform with recognized risk management best practices. For example, the program has documented a strategy for managing risks that includes important elements, such as relevant stakeholders and their responsibilities and the criteria for evaluating, categorizing, and prioritizing risks. However, while the program has a well- defined risk management process, it has not been fully implemented. For example, the program has not provided adequate or timely evaluations for potential risks, did not always provide adequate rationale for the decision to close a risk, and has at least two critical risks in need of additional attention. Until all defined risk management practices are diligently executed and critical risks adequately mitigated, the GOES-R program is at risk of exceeding cost and schedule targets, and launch dates could slip.

Why GAO Did This Study

The GOES-R series is a set of four satellites intended to replace existing weather satellites that will likely reach the end of their useful lives in about 2015. NOAA estimates the series to cost $10.9 billion through 2036. Because the transition to the series is critical to the nation’s ability to maintain the continuity of data required for weather forecasting, GAO reviewed NOAA’s management of the GOES-R program.

Specifically, GAO was asked to (1) assess NOAA’s progress in developing the GOES-R satellite program, (2) evaluate whether the agency has a reliable schedule for executing the program, and (3) determine whether the program is applying best practices in managing and mitigating its risks.

GAO analyzed program management, acquisition, and cost data; evaluated contractor and program-wide schedules against best practices; analyzed program documentation including risk management plans and procedures; and interviewed government and contractor staff regarding program progress and challenges.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making recommendations to NOAA to assess and report reserves needed over the life of the program, improve the reliability of its schedules, and address identified program risks. NOAA concurred or partially concurred with GAO’s recommendations.

For more information, contact David A. Powner at (202) 512-9286 or pownerd@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: While the program has expanded its reporting of contingency reserve information to the Program Management Council (PMC), the information reported at monthly PMC meetings still does not include contingency reserves broken out for each satellite in the GOES-R series.

    Recommendation: To improve NOAA's ability to execute GOES-R's remaining planned development with appropriate reserves, improve the reliability of its schedules, and address identified program risks, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to assess and report to the NOAA Program Management Council the reserves needed for completing remaining development for each satellite in the series.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The GOES-R series program has made improvements to its scheduling management practices. For example, all subcontractor activities are now included in the core ground schedule and there is a higher percentage of activities allocated to individual resources in the spacecraft schedule. Overall, the primary schedules for the program's ground and flight project showed improvement in four and two best practices areas, respectively. In late 2013, the program also identified further actions to ensure appropriate schedule logic, including monthly "health checks" and faster elimination of unnecessary constraints. However, the program has not yet provided details showing a realistic allocation of resources, nor has it demonstrated that it has addressed shortfalls in other component schedules. We will continue to monitor the agency's progress in addressing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve NOAA's ability to execute GOES-R's remaining planned development with appropriate reserves, improve the reliability of its schedules, and address identified program risks, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to, for all satellites in the GOES-R program, including those for which detailed scheduling has yet to begin, address shortfalls in the schedule management practices we identified, including but not limited to incorporating appropriate schedule logic, eliminating unnecessary constraints, creating a realistic allocation of resources, ensuring an unbroken critical path from the current date to the final satellite launch, and ensuring that all subcontractor activities are incorporated in contractors' integrated master schedules.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA concurred with this recommendation. In August 2013, the GOES-R program updated its risk management plan to clarify policies and procedures for providing timely and adequate evaluations of risk categories, documenting strategies for ongoing and newly identified risks, identifying timeframes for risk mitigation and fallback plans, providing rationale for decisions to close risks, and tracking risk action items from the risk management boards. In January 2014, the program provided screen captures from use of its automated risk management tool, showing how the system is set up to require the evaluation of risks by risk category; the input of information for newly identified risks; time limits for entering risk mitigation plans; the entering of a rationale when risks were closed; and the tracking of detailed handling strategy action items.

    Recommendation: To improve NOAA's ability to execute GOES-R's remaining planned development with appropriate reserves, improve the reliability of its schedules, and address identified program risks, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to execute the program's risk management policies and procedures to provide more timely and adequate evaluations and reviews of newly identified risks, documented handling strategies for all ongoing and newly identified risks in the risk register, time frames for when risk mitigation and fallback plans are to be executed, adequate rationale for decisions to close risks, and documentation and tracking of action items from risk review board meetings or other meetings with senior NOAA and NASA managers through completion.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with this recommendation. In 2012, the GOES-R series program added the risk that changes to the first GOES-R series satellite (GOES-R) schedule would impact the schedule of the second satellite (GOES-S) to its critical risk list. By January 2014, the program removed this risk from its monthly management update, and showed that GOES-S remaining slack would be enough to absorb a GOES-R slip all the way to the GOES-R commitment date. Given this, it is not possible for a GOES-R delay to impact the launch date of GOES-S. Finally, the program continued to monitor the program-identified funding stability risk, and identified steps it could take to mitigate the funding stability risk, if warranted.

    Recommendation: To improve NOAA's ability to execute GOES-R's remaining planned development with appropriate reserves, improve the reliability of its schedules, and address identified program risks, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to, given the potential impact to the program, add the risk that GOES-S milestones may be affected by GOES-R development to the program's critical risk list, and ensure that this risk and the program-identified funding stability risk are adequately monitored and mitigated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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