As the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) prepares to take on a larger role in the collection of Landsat imagery, the South Dakota facility

at the center of those plans is gearing up for major procurements while searching for a new director following the departure of one of its long

time leaders.

R.J. Thompson stepped down in early June as the director of the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Earth Resources Observation and Science

(EROS) Data Center and opted for retirement over

a position at USGS

headquarters in Reston, Va. Thompson was preceded out the door by his deputy, Jim Sturdevant, who left

to take a management position with a Sioux Falls ethanol producer.

Richard Hogan, USGS

chief of operations for geography, was sent out to Sioux Falls from Reston to serve as acting director of the satellite imagery archiving and distribution center until a permanent replacement is found. The vacancy posting is expected to remain up until mid


Thompson’s departure followed a wide-ranging review of EROS management practices initiated by



after a formal complaint was lodged by an EROS employee offended by a humorous video produced for

an annual employee awards ceremony this spring. Thompson appeared in the video.

USGS officials declined to discuss the offending content of the video or make a copy available for viewing. Numerous sources only would say that the video was inappropriate.

Barbara Ryan, USGS associate director of geography, said during a Sept. 5 interview that the video

“was the subject of a complaint.”

“I think mistakes were made,” she said. “I think there were some lapses in judgment and [we are] just trying to get back to roles and responsibilities between the public sector and the private sector.”

According to USGS and industry

sources, the review also took issue with

a holiday banquet EROS held at a local hotel early this year and an employee golf league in which EROS contractors and civil servants play side by side.

Ryan said the golfing “was one of the issues.” She also said the USGS has received Freedom of Information Act requests “for material that has been generated around the annual celebration, the annual party.”

Ryan downplayed a connection between the management review and the timing of Thompson’s retirement. “You may want to talk to him to see to what degree, if any, that influenced his decision to retire.”

Thompson, who joined EROS in 1971 during its startup and held various leadership positions before being named director in 2002, gave no indication in a mid August interview that his departure was anything other than voluntary. He said that after 45 years of government service he was ready to retire. Thompson did not respond to a subsequent e-mail and multiple phone messages requesting a follow-up interview to discuss the role the management review might have played in his decision to retire.

Sturdevant, meanwhile, told Space News in late August that he left for personal reasons

and they are going to stay personal.”

Located on the prairie 25 kilometers northeast of Sioux Falls and about 15 kilometers from the nearest restaurant, the EROS Data Center

has a mostly contractor work force. This work force has

a reputation for smooth, results-oriented performance in what some have described as “badge-less environment” that has

minimized the distinction between civil servant and contractor.

But that is

changing, according to Ryan and other officials.

“The rules are going to be a little tighter now,” said one EROS veteran who declined to be identified by name. “I’m sure we’re still going to get the job done but it’s not going to be the same.”

Ryan said the USGS is in the process of clarifying the respective roles and responsibilities of civil servants and contractors

as it prepares to hold a competition for a new

technical support services contract at EROS that will cover the

majority of the center’s

work force. Of the nearly 700 people who work there, about 85 to

90 are civil servants. Most of center’s technical and scientific staff are employees of

San Diego

-based Science Applications International Corp. and Greenbelt, Md.-based SGT


Those companies

together displaced

Raytheon Technical Services of Reston, Va., in 2002 to win a five-year technical support services contract valued at $154 million.

Ryan said management of the EROS support

contract – the largest within the U.S. Department of Interior – is moving from EROS to USGS headquarters in October. That is

the same month the USGS

expects to request bids for a new five-year support contract it expects to award in April or May of 2008.

Ryan said her intention is to ensure that EROS

, viewed as something of a maverick since its establishment more than

35 years ago,

is doing everything by the book.

“When you look back to 1972 and the whole climate of public-private sector partnership, we were on the cutting edge [with EROS] bringing in a large contractor

force to the table,” Ryan said. “What has happened is policies, regulations, requirements in fact have changed [and] gotten fairly proscriptive about the appropriate role of the public sector and the private sector, and we are just trying to make sure that we are squeaky clean with everything as we go into not only a procurement of this magnitude but also a program of this importance to the nation.”

The USGS and EROS are expected to take on new prominence in the realm of Earth observation

under a White House plan unveiled in August to establish a National Land Imaging Program under Interior’s leadership. The objective

is to put the collection of moderate-resolution Landsat-type satellite imagery on a more stable, operational footing by giving a single agency managerial and budget responsibility for the program.

Thompson told Space News in mid

August that he was pleased and excited that a satellite program to which he had devoted nearly his entire career appears poised “to take the next step into the operations phase.”

Bruce Quirk, USGS land remote sensing program coordinator, said Thompson – an emeritus USGS employee still eligible for paid or volunteer assignments – is more than welcome to lend a hand getting the national program up and running inside Interior.

“I’ve got a couple ideas I’ve been trying

to get him to bite

on, but I think he’s really starting to enjoy his vacation,” Quirk said.

For now, Landsat budget responsibility remains split between NASA and the USGS.

EROS is gearing up to select a contractor to operate the new Landsat spacecraft NASA has in development for a 2011 launch. A final request for proposals for an EROS-based flight operations team is due out by the end of September, according to


. The new satellite, dubbed the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, will

replace the old and ailing Landsats 5 and 7, which are operated for USGS by Honeywell Technology Solutions of Columbia, Md., from two separate sites in the Washington area.