The Washington Post has an interesting article on the National Polar Orbiting Envirnonmental Satellite System (NPOESS).
“A tri-agency project that will circle the globe picking up weather and climate data, NPOESS was intended to save money by replacing two similar systems operated separately by the Air Force and NOAA. Unfortunately, construction and testing bungles slowed things down so that 14 years later, the cost of the…program has doubled from $6.5 to $12.5 billion for four instead of six satellites. And the first bird has yet to make its maiden voyage.”
A couple of relevant points.
First, the government forced two competing agencies to combine their platforms into one “Battlestar Galactica,” in the belief that it would reduce costs. That’s a trick the government has tried many times (anyone remember the F-111?), and it never works. Forcing one platform to meet all requirements from all users predictably increases costs. Still, the government never learns.
Second, the cost per satellite is now over $4 billion.
Compare that to the cost of a Bigelow space station, which is expected to be a few hundred million.
Of course, the Bigelow space station does not have all the sensors NPOESS will have but still, the difference is noteable. This is another example that disproves the old canard that “umanned systems will always be cheaper.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean we will see crewed weather satellites in the future, although that’s not outside the realm of possibility. Many people would argue that automated sensors are so good that there’s very little value human observers could add. Maybe so, but wouldn’t it be cool to tune into CNN or the Weather Channel and see a meteorologist giving a live report from space? The infotainment side of the business should not be overlooked.
Also, the cost of those very expensive sensors might go down if they could be maintained periodically, instead of having to operate flawlessly on orbit for years. Even if crewed weather stations are not in our future, it would be nice if the Maytag repairman could visit weather satellites now and then.