Sunday, March 18, 2012

GPS III Program, Ground Systems Grossly Over Budget

gps satellite IIF

The United States GPS program was the first real successful venture into global satellite navigation, but as more countries enter the GNSS market, for the U.S. to stay ahead we have to continue to innovate and expand. That means updating satellites and ground stations, which is exactly what the GPS III satellites were expected to do. However, these satellites have seen setback after setback and now the USAF is reporting that the project is more than two years behind schedule and already $700 million over budget.

Inside GNSS wrote a fantastic article outlining the Senate Subcommittee Hearing held recently in regards to the GPS III program, and as it turns out both the GPS III satellites AND the ground system development have been delayed by “an array of issues” including engineering shortcomings, mismanagement, oversight, and all other number of factors.

Christina Chaplain, director for Acquisition and Sourcing Management at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that the updates for the GPS ground control segment, which pinpoints the GPS satellites, is behind by about four years. Furthermore, the estimated contract cost for the total system upgrade has more than doubled: from $886 million in February 2010 to $1.98 billion in 2015. Chaplain, in her written testimony, said that the total program cost has risen from $3.5 billion to $4.1 billion.

This doesn’t bode very well for 2017 launch of the GPS III satellites that are currently in production, as the ground system is outdated enough that it’s unlikely that the improved satellites will work without some tweaking of the ground stations. Without those ground stations up to date, the satellites won’t know where the satellites are and therefore calculating other things becomes impossible. Chaplain said that she thought the Air Force would likely have to find a “workaround solution” for using the satellites.

Personally, I’m not really sure how anything could go that far over budget before someone noticed and decided to step in and take action. The Inside GNSS article features several quotes from Sen. John McCain attempting to pinpoint who, exactly, was to blame for the problem, but I’m not sure that really matters. It’s a good thing the current GPS satellites work just fine or we’d be in a lot more trouble.

To read more about the horrible budgeting and mismanagement, head over to Inside GNSS for the full story.

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