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NASA veterans tapped to fix weather satellite program

Posted: February 7, 2011

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NASA has appointed a cast of top managers to lead a troubled weather satellite program out of a bureaucratic abyss, restore confidence, and avoid a gap in essential meteorological observations. And do it all on a tight budget.

NASA selected Preston Burch, former program manager of the Hubble Space Telescope, to lead the new Joint Polar Satellite System office. Credit: NASA
The Air Force has also kicked off a new weather satellite program to serve warfighters around the world.

The new efforts got started a year ago this month, when the White House ordered the dissection of the troubled $15 billion NPOESS weather satellite program. The U.S. Defense Department and NOAA responded by dismantling an inefficient joint management structure and establishing the groundwork for separate systems to begin supplying weather data in the second half of this decade.

NASA controls the acquisition, development and launch of NOAA's civilian weather satellites.

But 2011 will be a pivotal year for the next-generation weather and civil satellite programs. The Air Force, NOAA and NASA are still restructuring contracts and facing questionable funding levels to achieve crucial program objectives.

The Joint Polar Satellite System and the Defense Weather Satellite System were set up last year by NOAA and the Air Force. JPSS spacecraft are scheduled to start launching as early as 2015 and the first DWSS payload is aiming for launch readiness by 2018.

NASA asked Preston Burch, a four-decade space program veteran, to be the first JPSS program manager. Burch's last assignment was leading the Hubble Space Telescope project through two space shuttle servicing missions from 2001 to 2010.

"Once Hubble servicing was over with, my boss decided I needed a new challenge," Burch said. "He said why don't you come over to the JPSS program and get that started."

Burch was installed as the top JPSS official in February 2010.

"It's a position with tremendous responsibility and a lot of visibility," Burch said.

He is joined by Art Whipple, another former senior Hubble official, as the JPSS chief engineer. Elizabeth Citrin, who most recently oversaw development of the Solar Dynamics Observatory, is Burch's deputy project manager. NASA selected former Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter project manager Craig Tooley to direct work on the JPSS spacecraft development.

"We have a good strong management and technical team at the top," Burch said. "My philosophy is to try to hire the best of the best, so we've been very selective in our hiring."

Although some lower-level engineers were carryovers from the NPOESS program, most senior managers are new to the weather satellite business.

"We have a different approach to managing this work, so we feel we don't need as many people as they had on NPOESS to do the engineering and management work," Burch said. "This is a leaner, more efficient organization, although still quite large."

Amid the hiring, the JPSS and DWSS programs have been overhauling contracts left over from NPOESS, salvaging development already underway under the old system. For the JPSS program, the reorganization is being slowed by anemic funding, Burch said.

The federal government is operating on a continuing resolution, freezing the budget near last year's levels. The continuing resolution effectively cut funding for the JPSS program because it was considered a new initiative that didn't exist before 2010.

"It has potentially a very profound effect on our launch date for JPSS 1," Burch said.

The continuing resolution has so far cut this year's expected JPSS budget in half. The launch of NOAA's first next-generation weather satellite has already slipped nearly 24 months in the past year.

"That's pushed us well into 2016," Burch said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. "It remains to be seen what happens in March. If, in March, we can get back to full funding, we'll be looking at ways to pull that launch date back, and hopefully we'll be able to launch in 2015."

The continuing resolution expires March 4, so Congress will have to further extend the temporary funding measure or adopt fresh spending bills to avoid a government shutdown.

Burch has ordered the program to focus initial work on the JPSS ground system, which needs to be up and running before the launch of the stopgap NPOESS Preparatory Project weather satellite in October. But the near-term priority comes at the expense of work on follow-on JPSS missions.

"Unfortunately, our funding level at the moment has our instrument development contracts running at less than 50 percent of where they need to be to support a launch in early 2015," Burch said.

Artist's concept of the JPSS 1 spacecraft in orbit. Credit: Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp.
NASA's contract with Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. for the JPSS 1 satellite is also victim of the tight budget.

"Our spacecraft contract we have is on life support," Burch said. "You can envision the patient with a breathing tube, IV drips, a heart monitor and everything. It's just trickling along at a pathetically slow rate because we don't have money. We don't even have money to buy long-lead items for it. That's really what's pushing the launch date out - the fact that most of our funding is going to the (NPOESS) ground system, which had a lot of defects on it that were uncovered in testing last year."

NPOESS was cancelled after burgeoning costs and schedule delays that observers mostly blamed on a cumbersome management structure that included the Air Force, NOAA and NASA sharing key decision-making roles.

The tri-agency program office was dissolved last year as the Air Force, NOAA and NASA set up their own organizations to oversee the JPSS and DWSS programs.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is managing development of JPSS. Officials spent last year righting the ship, fixing glaring problems inherited from NPOESS and laying a healthy foundation for the new program, according to Burch.

Burch said his team is in the process of transitioning spacecraft and instrument contracts to Goddard from Northrop Grumman Corp., the lead industrial partner on the NPOESS program.

The Defense Department plans to continue working with Northrop Grumman. Military leaders are finalizing a plan to modify the NPOESS "Charlie" spacecraft bus for DWSS satellites.

NASA and NOAA last year selected Ball Aerospace of Colorado to build the first JPSS spacecraft. The contract was awarded in September.

Two of the five JPSS 1 instruments have also been formally handed over to Goddard. Burch said NASA has assumed control of contracts for Ball's Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite and the Cross-track Infrared Sounder with ITT Geospatial Systems.

NASA also has oversight of the Raytheon Co. integrated ground system, which will be used by civil and military weather satellites.

Officials hope to transfer contracts for the other instruments to NASA management in the next few months, but execution of those contracts will hinge on how much money the agency has to spend.

A second JPSS spacecraft was supposed to launch by 2018 to ensure there are no gaps in polar satellite weather coverage, which is used by forecasters and climatologists to predict short-, medium- and long-range weather patterns. Each satellite is limited in life by propellant and potential mechanical breakdowns.

The JPSS 2 launch will likely be delayed by the ongoing funding shortfall. Officials haven't started development of that spacecraft yet.

"We think it will be a spacecraft similar to JPSS 1, but we have not been giving that a whole lot of attention," Burch said.

Artist's concept of the Defense Weather Satellite System. Credit: Northrop Grumman Corp.
The Air Force isn't facing the same urgency as NOAA.

The military, NOAA and Eumetsat, Europe's weather satellite operator, share responsibility for global coverage in three different types of polar orbits. The Air Force is primarily interested in an orbit in which satellites fly over regions on Earth in the early morning, while Eumetsat and NOAA assets cover mid-morning and afternoon orbits, respectively.

The Air Force still has two legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program payloads scheduled for launch in October 2012 and some time in 2014. The military won't launch the first DWSS spacecraft until 2018, and a second next-generation satellite should be ready for flight by 2021, according to Peggy Hodge, a spokesperson for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.

And unlike NOAA, the Air Force isn't being hindered by the continuing resolution, Hodge said.

The frozen budget has "no impact" on the DWSS program because it isn't considered a "new start," and the military has the authority to spend up to 80 percent of a budgeted $352 million this fiscal year, according to the Air Force.

But the DWSS program is now spending at a rate of about $175 million, the Air Force spokesperson said.

The Defense Department last August approved a plan for DWSS satellites to recycle much of the NPOESS architecture, including the modified Charlie satellite bus and the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite, a space weather sensor named SEM and a still-unidentified microwave instrument to measure soil moisture, atmospheric temperatures, precipitation and sea surface winds.

"We have done extensive work with Northrop Grumman looking at what the DWSS bus will look like, leveraging a lot of the work with NPOESS," said John Baldonado, director of the Air Force Defense Weather Systems Directorate at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif.

Baldonado said he expects to transition to an Air Force DWSS contract with Northrop Grumman this year.