GAO: NOAA satellite procurement in trouble

The Commerce Department is fumbling its acquisition of the next generation of weather satellites and could be facing a five-month gap in climate data coverage in 2015, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reduced the number of next-generation weather satellites to be produced under a project with NASA and extended the deadline for the first satellite launch by a year. But the program is still looking at a $670 million increase in budget, GAO auditors said in a report dated April 23.

The goal of NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite–R series (GOES-R) is to replace current weather satellites that collect climate data for forecasting purposes. Those satellites are expected to begin reaching the end of their life cycle in 2014.

NOAA has already signed development contracts for key instruments for the new satellites and plans to award deals for the spacecraft and ground segments by mid-2009.

To reduce costs, NOAA lowered the number of climate data products that the satellites will produce from 81 down to 34, the GAO report states. As for the number of satellites, it was reduced from four to two. The first satellite launch will likely be delayed from December 2014 to May 2015, which could lead to a five-month gap in coverage if there is a problem with the launch because there might be no backup satellite available at that time, GAO auditors said.

NOAA’s new cost estimate of $7.7 billion is a $670 million increase from the previous estimate, the GAO report states. However, NOAA officials have not documented all the reasons for the cost overruns.

In addition, the agency faces technical challenges in acquiring the ground segments and instruments for the satellites and has not performed a comprehensive review after adjusting requirements for a critical instrument, GAO auditors said.

“Until these issues are addressed, NOAA faces an increased risk that the GOES-R program will repeat the same mistakes that have plagued other satellite programs,” the GAO report states.

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