The Vegetation Canopy Lidar (VCL) was selected in March 1997 as the first Earth System Science Pathfinder (ESSP) spaceflight mission. It was scheduled for launch in January 2000. As of the writing of this case study ( it has yet to fly.

At confirmation, VCL was described as an imperative mission on the basis of its unique measurement set. It was also stated that, The VCL instrumentation is evolutionary, grounded in space-born laser altimeter heritage established by NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center. The first statement is still true today. The second proved woefully inaccurate.

Artist's concept of the Vegetation Canopy Lidar spacecraft

The VCL promised to provide for the first time global data that would allow Earth scientists to model, monitor, and predict the state of Earths ecosystem and provide key inputs for climate modeling and predictions. Image Credit: NASA

All concerned, including NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise, the Goddard Earth Sciences Directorate, and the Earth science community, considered VCL to be imperative because its principle goal was nothing less than the three-dimensional mapping of the land surface structure of the entire Earth. This mapping encompassed both the Earths land cover canopy vertical and horizontal structure and its land surface topography. VCL promised to provide for the first time global data that would allow Earth scientists to model, monitor, and predict the state of Earths ecosystem and provide key inputs for climate modeling and predictions. With such a dramatic increase in global knowledge promised, everyone wanted VCL to succeed.

Under the terms of the ESSP Announcement of Opportunity (AO) the Principal Investigator (PI) was responsible for the science integrity and success of the mission and led the VCL mission development team. Being inexperienced in spaceflight hardware development, the PI chose to contract for the project management of the mission, the mission systems engineering, ground system development, and performance assurance, as well as the spacecraft development and mission integration and test.

The first ESSP AO offered two mission opportunities: a $60M life-cycle cost mission to be launch ready within 36 months of selection and a $90M lifecycle mission to be launch ready within 48 months of selection. The life-cycle costs were defined to include definition, development, launch service, operations, data analysis, and data distribution/archiving. The VCL team decided to go for the first launch and felt they could do the mission within the $60M cost cap. Repeated cost increases beyond this cap ultimately led to the termination of the VCL mission development and the instrument being relegated to a technology development program.

In light of the VCL history, it is easy to second-guess the selection and confirmation processes. Unhappily, the brilliance of VCLs proposed science was overshadowed by its flawed management and instrument technology development plans. There are a number of lessons learned from the VCL failure. They are valuable to both program/project managers and institutional managers.

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