Only slightly less miserable than the weather in the Northeast as a result of hurricane Sandy is the abysmal state of the nation’s weather satellite programs which are charged with tracking such occurrences.
As Marcia Smith points out at spacepolicyonline, one impact Sandy is having is to focus some media attention on the fact that the U.S. is facing a potential gap in coverage from both polar and geostationary weather satellites. As this GAO report from June describes in painful detail, the nation essentially wasted an entire decade on a joint Department of Defense and NOAA program (with NASA participating as well) to combine separate military and civilian polar orbiting weather satellite into one program, NPOESS. Following massive cost overruns and an ever slipping schedule, the program was cancelled by the Obama administration in 2010.
If the story of a looming gap in a major space program sounds all to familiar, it probably should.
Whether the subject is the absence of Mars planetary missions beyond Curiosity, the ongoing ‘gap” in U.S. manned spaceflight capability, or the future of NOAA and DOD weather satellites which has degenerated into a hot mess, they all share some strikingly similar characteristics. The most notable perhaps is the seemingly inability in recent years to undertake large space projects without engendering massive cost overruns. It is of course a problem which has been around since the beginning of the space age, but in an era of budgetary constriction, the effects are magnified. Whether it is Project Constellation, the James Webb Space Telescope, or the recently cancelled NOAA/DOD NPOESS polar satellite program; bad policy, poor management and an”aw shucks” toleration of budget overruns in the cost plus contracting environment, are all too often leading to very poor return on taxpayer investment.
As Sunday’s conclusion of the SpaceX CRS-1 mission illustrated, NASA’s COTS program has proven a very different model in taking on what would otherwise be considered a major space development without losing control of the budget. If Orbital Sciences is equally successful in conducting the launch campaign for its Antares booster and Cygnus spacecraft as well, it will be an important step forward in demonstrating that the COTs model is applicable across a wider range of aerospace companies.
While the COTS approach and the use of Space Act Agreements cannot be a panacea for everything the nation attempts to undertake in space; after all it depends on a substantial commercial component to the missions undertaken, it seems very clear that any rational approach to achieving better results from future programs will need to look for new ways to apply the lessons learned.
For the nation’s weather satellite programs, this might mean a look at hosted payloads on commercial satellites, or the use of much smaller satellites, or even ISS to aid in testing of sophisticated instruments which hold up the deployment of larger, primary weather sats. As always, one component of a long term solution to this as well as most other space problems is the solving the issue of launch costs, and the closely related matter of launch frequency. Progress in both areas would significantly lessen the perceived need to try and pack everything on to larger and more expensive platforms, which was at the heart of the 1994 decision to combine somewhat divergent civilian and defense satellite programs.