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Back from the brink: Broken satellite now fixed and ready

Posted: February 1, 2009

A half-billion dollar climate observatory, having weathered the storied perils of its past, is finally poised for launch early Wednesday.

The NOAA-N Prime satellite is scheduled for liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., at 2:22 a.m. PST (5:22 a.m. EST; 1022 GMT).

Spaceflight Now staff visited the satellite factory last summer and saw the rebuilt NOAA N-Prime satellite. Credit: Lockheed Martin
A Delta 2 rocket, boosted by three 40-inch-wide solid motors, will propel the 3,130-pound spacecraft to an altitude of 530 statute miles during a nearly 66-minute mission.

Live reports on Wednesday's ascent will be posted in our Mission Status Center.

The launch, the culmination of years of hard work for most missions, will carry a special distinction for NOAA-N Prime.

On a September day five years ago, officials received news that the satellite was damaged at its factory.

"It was a Saturday and I was sitting at home when I got a phone call from my program manager," said Gary Davis, director of the Office of Systems Development at NOAA's Satellite and Information Service.

Minds began contemplating every scenario as images of the smashed satellite spread across the Internet.

"The picture was very scary," Davis said.

The spacecraft was being titled from vertical to horizontal position when it slipped from a "turnover cart" and crashed to the floor of a processing facility at Lockheed Martin Corp. in Sunnyvale, Calif.

"We did not know the cause, and we did not know the impact at the time," Davis said. "We just knew that we stopped all work. We froze what was going on, and we got a team together over that weekend that got out to Lockheed Martin on Monday morning to start investigating the status of the spacecraft and the cause of the accident."

The NOAA-N Prime satellite after its fall to the factory floor in September 2003. Credit: NASA report
Engineers immediately began examining the satellite to see if it was repairable.

"There was a significant amount of damage. No two ways about it," said Jeff Vanden Beukel, program director at Lockheed Martin.

It took several months to survey the damage and inventory spare parts to make sure the satellite could be rebuilt, according to Davis.

"We put together a philosophy that, without question, if we had a spare part, we would swap it out. If we didn't have a spare part, we would attempt to fix. If we couldn't fix, then we would have to buy new," Davis said.

Because NOAA-N Prime is the final satellite in the agency's venerable polar satellite program, officials were able to use a large inventory of spares left over from earlier missions.

About 75 percent of the craft's components were replaced with new or spare hardware, Vanden Beukel said.

The satellite's support structure was reused, along with several other parts. Engineers recertified components they decided to keep on the spacecraft, officials said.

Lockheed Martin disassembled the satellite and conducted vibration and thermal tests on every part engineers planned to reuse.

"I'm confident we've got good hardware on there now," Vanden Beukel said.

The repairs cost NOAA more than $217 million, but much of that money was already budgeted for NOAA-N Prime's planned two-year storage. The satellite was slated to be completed by 2005 but was not scheduled for launch until March 2008.

"By using the money that we would have paid to keep the spacecraft in storage and keep the spacecraft launch-ready and test during that time, we were able to do the rebuild and come very close to balancing the budget," Davis said.

Lockheed Martin also forfeited a portion of their profit from the program, Davis said.

"We wanted to be cost neutral in rebuilding the satellite," said Mike Mignogno, program manager of NOAA's Polar Operational Environmental Satellite system.

NASA, which oversees satellite acquisition, construction and launches for NOAA, established an investigation panel to determine the cause of the accident.

Investigators blamed factory workers for the factory accident. Credit: NASA report
The board delivered its report a year later, concluding that 24 bolts were not installed to secure the spacecraft to the turnover cart.

The report also detailed shoddy work practices at the Sunnyvale facility and indicted government agencies for their failure to detect the deficiencies.

"We made a lot of improvements with the facility, people, training people, their attitudes, everything," said Wayne McIntyre, POES project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The satellite will join NOAA's fleet of orbiting observatories that circle Earth to give forecasters information to use in medium- and long-range weather outlooks.

The POES system has provided a stream of continuous climate data since the launch of the first Television Infrared Observation Satellite in April 1960.

NOAA-N Prime is the last TIROS satellite in the nearly 50-year-old series.

The satellite's unusual name has caused many observers to ask why craft isn't named NOAA-O, the next logical step in the agency's alphabetical pre-launch naming system.

NOAA had planned to develop three more POES satellites, NOAA-O, P and Q, before more capable successors took over. But officials changed their minds after studying the costs and determined current satellites could bridge the gap.

This satellite's name was chosen to differentiate from the cancelled NOAA-O series.

The new polar-orbiting satellite system is due to begin operations in 2013.