Editorial: The Continuity of Landsat Uncertainty

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It is an oft-quoted saying that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. A lack of historical perspective would explain why the U.S. Congress appears intent on steering the nation’s civilian land imaging program down an all-too-familiar path to instability.

For 40 years, government-owned Landsat spacecraft have been collecting medium-resolution imagery of the world’s land masses, data that are shared with urban planners, natural resource managers and research scientists around the globe. But every 10 years or so, it seems, the program gets offered up as a guinea pig as budget-conscious lawmakers and policy wonks test the boundaries between inherently government and private-sector functions.

In rebuffing U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposal to shift Landsat funding responsibility to the Department of Interior, while calling on Landsat user agencies to explore alternatives for obtaining the data, Congress has reintroduced unwelcome uncertainty just as land imaging appeared to have finally turned an important policy corner.

Under President Obama’s proposal, which originated in the administration of his predecessor, NASA would buy the satellites with funds supplied by the Interior Department, whose U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) would operate the system and manage the data. NASA has successfully performed the same function for years for the weather satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President George W. Bush led an interagency effort to examine a number of Landsat alternatives, including international cooperation and public-private partnerships. After concluding that the commercial market for medium-resolution land imagery is not big enough to sustain a program, the group recommended that the government establish and maintain a core capability to collect and distribute Landsat data. The Bush administration got the ball rolling by designating Interior to take over responsibility for managing the program and funding the satellites.

It was a logical choice: Interior, which has stewardship of most federal lands and the natural resources therein, conceived of Landsat in the mid-1960s. NASA launched the first Landsat spacecraft in 1972 in partnership with Interior’s science arm, the USGS, which has been responsible for archiving and distributing the imagery since day one.

While NASA has built all seven Landsat spacecraft to date, it has not always managed the program. In the 1980s Landsat was transferred to NOAA, which oversaw the first of two ill-fated commercialization attempts: the creation of the Eosat joint venture to operate the satellites and market the data.

Eosat couldn’t make a successful go of selling imagery from satellites paid for by the government, and Congress, with the passage of the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act, handed the program back to NASA starting with the Landsat 7 satellite. The law, which repealed the Land Remote Sensing Commercialization Act of 1984, also directed U.S. policymakers to ensure the continuous collection of Landsat-type data.

But by the time the delayed Landsat 7 satellite launched in 1999, NASA was eyeing another privatization scheme whereby industry teams would compete to have the agency as the anchor customer for data collected by privately owned satellites. In 2003, after spending two years and millions of dollars nurturing two competitors for the commercial Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), NASA rejected the sole bid it got for the job.

NASA’s next move was to propose, along with the USGS, putting a Landsat sensor on the first of a new generation of civil-military weather satellites then slated to launch in 2010. That ill-advised and technically challenged proposal was scrapped in late 2005 in favor of a free-flying Landsat craft, a fortuitous decision given the subsequent cancellation of the weather satellite program. Officially dubbed LDCM but widely known as Landsat 8, that satellite is under construction and scheduled for a 2013 launch. Although Landsat 8 will be operated from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, USGS will foot the bill — as it does for Landsats 5 and 7 — and continue to fund and lead the science team.

The Obama administration, in a bid to return Landsat to a stable footing, asked Congress for $48 million this year to establish the National Land Imaging Program at the USGS and begin formulation of the Landsat 9 and Landsat 10 missions. But lawmakers, worried that a satellite procurement program would devour large portions of the USGS’s relatively small budget, rejected the idea and provided a scant $2 million for planning purposes. Lawmakers also suggested the administration look for “less costly options for obtaining Landsat data,” which the White House now says it plans to do.

“In the conferees’ view, this would be a prudent step, inasmuch as the current budget proposal is based on a report from the Office of Science and Technology Policy issued in 2008, and both technological advances and a vastly different economic environment may point to other, less costly, options for obtaining Landsat data,” lawmakers wrote in the report accompanying the 2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act signed into law late last year.

Assuming all goes smoothly with Landsat 8’s launch and operations, a successor will not be needed before 2018. But Landsat officials note that it can easily take five to six years to design, build and launch a satellite. Meanwhile, nothing has really changed in the last four or five years to justify another attempt to commercialize the program — if anything, the current economy hurts the business case. At the end of the day, the majority of Landsat users are government funded; they either draw paychecks from federal, state or local agencies, or they receive federal research grants.

The sooner Congress accepts the government’s primary role in providing a reliable, continually expanding record of our changing planet, the sooner Landsat can exit the crisis mode it has been in for much of the last 30 years.

For a program whose continuation is a matter of U.S. law, it is both unfortunate and ironic that Landsat’s only constant these days is uncertainty.