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Aging Infrastructure Makes for a Cloudy Forecast

A tree may fall in the woods and go unnoticed, but the same cannot be said about bridges. Each falling bridge garners quite the attention (some for longer than others). And well they should; our transportation infrastructure is a vital national asset. No less vital is the extraterrestrial infrastructure flying above. For several decades the United States has led the world in satellite technology. But recent difficulties suggest that past experience is no guarantee of future success.

These difficulties relate to failed attempts to replace our aging weather satellites. The Wall Street Journal reports on the extent of the problem:

"All told, 14 of the 23 active satellites monitored by NASA's Earth Observing System Project Science Office at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., have exceeded their engineering design life, with few replacements in view. The number of Earth-monitoring sensors in orbit aboard such spacecraft is expected to drop to fewer than 30 by the end of the decade from 110 last year, as aging satellites fail, costs soar and space missions go awry, according to the National Research Council."

As PBS reported earlier this year, these problems have been simmering for some time; they could be about to boil over. As satellites continue to fail, less data will be available to predict the weather, making those predictions less robust. Without new satellites, weather prediction capabilities may be lost. Consequently, the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) now lists the likelihood of a gap in weather data as a high risk area:

"Potential gaps in environmental satellite data beginning as early as 2014 and lasting as long as 53 months have led to concerns that future weather forecasts and warnings—including warnings of extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods—will be less accurate and timely. A number of decisions are needed to ensure contingency and continuity plans can be implemented effectively."

Among the decisions to be made are ones for mitigating the risks of having fewer government-controlled environmental sensors in space. In a separate report, the GAO has encouraged using more commercial and non-domestic solutions until sensors from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Defense Department can be put into orbit. Congress seems to be taking note and is considering legislation to make at least one of these possibilities more feasible.

Pending before the House and assigned to committee is a bill entitled the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2013 (H.R. 2413). Rather than proceed with repairing the public infrastructure, the bill encourages leveraging commercial infrastructure where appropriate—such as by purchasing weather data directly from commercial providers or by piggybacking government sensors on commercial platforms.

The bill also encourages reevaluating requirements. When considering trade-offs between cost, schedule, and performance, an expected data gap bolsters the case for putting more emphasis on schedule rather than performance. Certainly some data is better than no data at all. The Department of Defense appears to be thinking this way. It is planning to launch some legacy systems being stored as spares to extend existing coverage until new satellites are procured.

But lessening requirements may not be the salvation it at first appears. One of the problems plaguing the weather satellite community has been unstable requirements. Complicating matters is the long life cycle these satellites are expected to endure. Longer life cycles tend to make for more aggressive requirements, lead to more risk, require more money, and take more time. With each passing day, there is less and less time to spare.

What do you think? Have you any other mitigation strategies to propose? A white paper published by the Congressional Budget Office has some interesting ideas. Many of them share a common theme. Do you think one or more of them might resonate with any past or present acquisition reform initiatives? If so, what are they?

Samuel Mark Borowski
Associate General Counsel (Intellectual Property)
United States Air Force