By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
The people running America's military space program haven't exactly distinguished themselves by making smart moves in recent years, but they made such a move last week. Rather than deciding to kill or cutback a next-generation weather satellite program facing cost overruns, policymakers decided to keep the program on track and restructure contractor incentives to emphasize performance. The reason it was a smart move is that the satellite isn't really all that troubled -- a couple of subcontractors have fouled up work on sensors -- and the satellite will provide faster, more detailed weather information at a time when there is unprecedented concern about global climate change.
The satellite, called the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS, or "en-pose"), is jointly managed by the Pentagon and the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, because it will provide weather data to both the military and civilians. NASA has a role too. In the past, too many cooks have tended to weigh down orbital entrees with an excess of ingredients, and NPOESS is no exception: it carries 13 different sensors to track every conceivable environmental indicator. However, designers made a decision to bolt the diverse sensors to a common "bus" and integrate information on the ground rather than in space, so NPOESS doesn't entail the Herculean integration challenge seen on some other satellites.
The decision to keep NPOESS going is one in a series of developments that suggest military space is beginning to recover from past mistakes. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld entered office determined to exploit America's lead in orbital systems, only to discover that his predecessors had nearly wrecked the Pentagon's space efforts. Virtually every next-generation spacecraft program was burdened by under-funded budgets, weak government oversight, and excessive performance requirements. For example, the future missile-warning satellite had 18 "key performance parameters," four times the number that experts recommend for a manageable program.
So Rumsfeld's team has spent most of its tenure trying to fix space rather than exploit it. But they've made progress. A high-level review of the missile-warning satellite in California last week went about as well as any that program has received; there are still problems, but the program seems to be coming together in time to avert any gap in coverage (the system must be in orbit by 2015 as legacy satellites begin to fail). Not content to bet on success after many disappointments, Air Force Under Secretary Ron Sega has put in place both high-end and low-end backup plans to assure that if the program falters, there will still be continuity in the missile-warning mission.
The prospects for other programs are brightening too. The critically important Transformational Communications Satellite (T-SAT) has been reorganized to emphasize a step-by-step evolution of capabilities rather than a leap into the void. That program will probably be folded into the pre-existing Advanced EHF satellite system after Rumsfeld departs, but either approach is an improvement over the original plan. And the controversial Space Radar system for tracking and imaging ground targets will also follow an incremental "block" enhancement schedule favored by Sega.
So despite all the bad press for the military space program recently, things seem to be getting better. In the end, success comes down to three simple factors: (1) realistic requirements, (2) stable funding, and (3) competent managers. Progress is being made on all three fronts.