Op-ed | Time for U.S. Focus on Earth Observation, Space Industrial Base
In early November, the Earth Observation Industry Alliance (EOIA) — the only advocacy organization founded to exclusively promote the interests of the entire U.S. Earth observation sector — co-hosted a symposium on Commercial Space-based Laser Communications and the Space Data Highway with Airbus Defense & Space and General Atomics.
Many of the over 170 people who attended asked, why would EOIA work with a foreign aerospace prime contractor and a U.S.-based unmanned aerial vehicle manufacturer?
The answer is that the commercial remote sensing and Earth observation environment has changed radically since its founding in the mid-1990s. Commercial technology development has accelerated rapidly, bringing new capabilities — like laser communications — that can benefit and enable this sector regardless of its origin.
My organization believes leadership is needed to spotlight the power of commercial Earth observation capabilities. Unfortunately, the U.S. government’s approach to fostering Earth observation technology development and adoption has at best stalled and at worst languished.
Indeed as the Obama administration nears the end of its sixth year, the Earth observation community is still without a supporting U.S. government commercial remote sensing policy. President Barack Obama’s early approval of the National Space Policy gave many in the industry hope that this administration understood the importance of space to the economy’s recovery and that additional guidance would be forthcoming later in his first term. While the administration’s attention and priorities are focused on terrorism, health care and the economy, it is missing an opportunity to reinvigorate a key high-technology sector that holds great promise to improve many aspects of ordinary Americans’ daily lives.
Each administration since President Bill Clinton’s has advanced the interests of the Earth observation sector. The Clinton policy essentially created the industry by allowing previous classified satellite imaging technology to be used for commercial purposes. President George W. Bush encouraged greater adoption of commercial imaging capabilities to support national security requirements driven mainly by two foreign wars and a need for intelligence-quality information from any source, including commercial. The financial and budget crises prompted the Obama administration to push the Pentagon to reduce its budget by over $400 billion over 10 years. The main result for the commercial imagery world was the reduction to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s EnhancedView budget — its flagship 10-year, $7 billion commercial imagery program — and the merger of the two main U.S. commercial imagery companies, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe.
Many in the executive branch lauded the lowering of resolution limits from 0.5 to 0.25 meters. While this decision should be applauded, it took the administration over one-and-a-half years to conclude what had been apparent all along — the rest of the world has caught up to the United States in commercial satellite imaging capabilities.
Prudence dictates a thoughtful consideration of the resolution limits, particularly given the national security aspects of this technology. According to the Paris-based consultancy Euroconsult, 12 countries operate close to 45 high-resolution unclassified defense imaging systems, with over 50 more such systems planned within the next decade; this should indicate that U.S. systems are not the driving national security threat they once were.
Skybox and relative newcomer BlackSky Global received operating licenses from the U.S. Department of Commerce, but they have also been told to expect that other imaging modes and techniques will face greater scrutiny. Prime satellite makers continue to have difficulty obtaining marketing licenses and technical assistant agreements under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, hampering their ability to compete in a booming turnkey systems market globally. The absence of a presidential policy has opened the way for policymaking through the regulatory process rather than the other way around.
Many observers suggest that adequate policies exist to govern the industry and guide the various interagency processes at the State and Commerce departments. But the world is a different place than it was 11 years ago when President Bush penned his National Security Presidential Directive on commercial remote sensing policy. A definitive statement from President Obama could greatly benefit the relatively rapid emergence of creative, agile, Web-savvy satellite imaging companies — from winning potential investors needed to close their investment cases to attracting the interest of key customers globally.
Any new policy should at a minimum acknowledge the changed world environment and recast the commercial remote sensing sector as an instrument of U.S. policy and power rather than a potential threat to be restrained. A new policy should signal a willingness to meaningfully re-engage with the commercial sector and promote greater sustained adoption of this technology. This can be accomplished by easing the regulatory regime and creating a policy environment globally to promote the export of space systems to a market hungry for the best we have to offer.
Dennis Jones is president of the Earth Observation Industry Alliance and the Jones Consulting Group LLC.