It is no surprise that the Future of Land Imaging Interagency Working Group, a panel of
civil and military users of medium-resolution satellite imagery, is recommending that the
government continue to own and operate Landsat-type satellites beyond the mission currently planned for launch around the end of the decade.
Generally speaking, federal agencies tend to err on the conservative side when it comes to sources of data they need to do their jobs. In the case of Landsat data, reservations about trying new and different approaches such as commercialization are well justified given the failure of previous attempts to do so. With a gap now likely between the demise of Landsat 7 and the planned 2010-2011 launch of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, the
departments of Interior, Agriculture and others are understandably eager to restore long-term stability to the program.
The working group has not slammed the door on innovation: its recommendation, to be delivered to the White House in February, calls only for the core mission to be government funded and operated, with data at the margins to be procured either commercially or via international partnerships. These alternatives could be expanded once they begin to prove themselves.
It is a common-sense approach that the White House should adopt without hesitation.
As to who should take ownership of the program, the U.S. Geological Survey, a branch of the Department of Interior, is a logical choice. NASA, with its expertise, could continue to buy the satellites just like it traditionally has done in the case of weather satellites funded and operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But if there is to be any transfer of Landsat funding responsibility, it must come with a strong mandate from the White House or, better yet, from Congress in the form of law, that the agency on the receiving end make the appropriate budget available. Any lingering questions over just who has responsibility for funding Landsat procurement, launches and operations will only lead to more instability, which everyone involved can agree is the last thing this program needs.