September 1st, 2005

Beware the Engineer

So it goes

My former project, the NPOESS weather satellite, was written up in the Wall Street Journal today. Good news? Don't be silly:

The multisatellite project, being built by Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. with Defense Department oversight, is running as much as 15% over budget and more than 18 months behind a previously extended schedule

Good heavens, how could that happen?

The satellites were conceived as a way to save money by replacing separate fleets of civilian and military spacecraft. Many problems stem from loading up the satellites with an unusually wide range of sensitive sensors.

Yep, let's take the needs of the military weather community (global coverage, rapid delivery), the US domestic weather support (detailed data, specific sun conditions), and the climatology science community (very high resolution data on many different wavelengths) and merge them into one system. Can't be any conflict between--gack. Sorry, I choked on that.

When I did a USC paper on NPOESS I compared it to the Department of Agriculture deciding to breed an animal that produced both eggs and milk. NPOESS is a lot more complicated and expensive than the predecessor DMSP, POES, and EOS systems. So how can we make this worse? Well, let's start with the desire to have all the latest high-tech gadgets on the bird.

Sophisticated infrared and other types of sensors under development have "problems with technology, with design shortfalls...and fabrication," Fred Ricker, Northrop's program manager, said.

Yep. Take a whole bunch of high-risk efforts and have the system depend on all of them so the worst one drives the schedule.

Ronald Sega, the Air Force's recently appointed undersecretary, . . . . told the Long Beach conference attendees that for future projects, he is looking to "distribute risks in a different way" by focusing on "a modular type of approach" [snip] "splitting the capability into multiple spacecraft."

Known outside defense circles as "not putting all your eggs in one basket." What an amazing idea.