Warning Signs

The Air Force may be facing additional delays and costs in getting the first space based infrared system early warning satellite, GEO-1, into orbit in December 2009 as planned, the Government Accountability Office warns in a report issued Sept. 30. Indeed the confidence level that some contractors will produce the necessary software in time to meet that launch goal is in some cases only five percent and the program’s schedule allows little margin for error, the agency notes. Further, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has introduced more risk by granting waivers to streamline the software development processes to meet the schedule, thereby allowing the program “to deviate from disciplined processes,” GAO says. In 2007, the SBIRS program had a “major setback” when flight software for GEO-1 failed testing due to design issues, GAO said. In April of this year, OSD approved the fix, estimating at that time that the program would be delayed by 15 months and incur costs of $414 million to resolve the issue. “But these estimates appear optimistic,” GAO writes. Gary Payton, USAF’s deputy under secretary for space programs, acknowledged last month that the SBIRS program is not out of the woods in terms of overcoming all of its developmental challenges. “We’ve still got problems with SBIRS,” he said Sept. 25 during a Space Foundation-sponsored media roundtable in Washington, D.C. A silver lining is that the program is much better equipped now to conduct realistic ground tests so that issues can be discovered before the satellite is on orbit and it’s too late to fix them, he said. “Finding problems with a program is never good, but I’d rather find it on the ground than in space,” he said.