The United States is the most powerful country in the world, in part, because we dominate the skies. More than 50 years ago, the Soviet Union rocked our world by launching Sputnik into space. The United States responded with a swift investment in space technology, a reinvigorated spirit of innovation and unprecedented emphasis on science education. In less than 12 years, these efforts culminated with a man landing on the Moon, a robust American space infrastructure and every kid on Earth wanting to be Neil Armstrong.

Satellites keep us safe. We use satellites and their imagery for everything from operating GPS navigation systems in cars to providing real-time data to our troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Satellites assist in reconnaissance missions and allow us to keep an eye on important developments around the world. We use them to map the front lines in the Middle East and find where al-Qaida is hiding.

Unfortunately, America is in danger of losing its pre-eminence in space. A once-robust partnership between the U.S. government and the American space industry has been weakened by years of demanding space programs, the exponential complexity of technology and an inattention to acquisition discipline. We are facing a challenge left by a decade of failed acquisitions that has left potential holes in our satellite system known as overhead architecture. This could leave us without the ability to secure the intelligence we need to prepare for potential attacks or target suspected terrorists around the world. Now we have the potential to fall behind on systems that provide services like global positioning, weather monitoring and missile warning. Together with my colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee, we set out last year to find out how this happened and create a road map to move forward.

As chairman of the House Intelligence technical and tactical (T & T) intelligence subcommittee, I convened a series of classified meetings, in-depth analysis and “tabletop” exercises with staff from the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and commercial satellite companies, and put together a comprehensive “Report on Challenges and Recommendations for United States Overhead Architecture.” Here is what we found:

  • America needs a comprehensive plan or road map for overhead architecture — including imagery, signals and communications.
  • America needs to clearly determine who has decision-making and funding authority, especially for joint-funded satellite programs, so that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Defense are working together.
  • America needs clearly defined goals for research and development, pre-acquisition and manufacturing of both government and commercial satellite programs.
  • Funding for research and development must be increased and happen before manufacturing starts. Commercial imagery must be considered under certain circumstances to keep costs down.
  • America needs to reform current export regulations that hinder the space industry, specifically the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR).

That was then. This is now. Since we released this report last year, my colleagues and I on the Intelligence Committee have been working closely with the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Defense to implement some of these recommendations and put America’s overhead architecture back on the right track.

Language in the Intelligence Authorization Act for 2010, approved by the House Intelligence Committee this June, required the Director of National Intelligence to review ITAR and determine what satellites and components could safely be taken off the list of sensitive technologies subject to export controls. This would allow U.S. space companies to sell their technology to the United States as well as overseas — a practice that is currently prohibited — as long at it doesn’t cause a security risk. Foreign companies that are American competitors are not subjected to these restrictions.

Twenty years ago, American companies controlled more than 70 percent of the commercial satellite industry, but because of ITAR that number has dropped to about 27 percent. This change will help reverse that trend. I also worked closely with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a great partner in ITAR reform, to get similar provisions inserted in both the Foreign Relations and Defense Authorization Acts for 2010. Both bills passed the House of Representatives in June.

With my colleagues on the House Appropriations commerce, justice, and science subcommittee and the Intelligence T & T intelligence subcommittee, we are also working to encourage collaboration between different agencies including NASA, the intelligence community and the Department of Defense. By sharing technologies such as spacecraft mission software, each agency can learn from the other and save critical dollars by preventing redundancy. The savings can then be spent in other areas of our space program.

The Intelligence Committee is also working with the Obama administration to restructure our satellite acquisition program and consider purchasing commercial satellites when appropriate. European countries have mastered this practice that allows them to purchase the latest in privately developed technology at a reduced cost. The savings are used to fund other important space programs. We are also working with the administration to create a comprehensive road map for overall overhead architecture.

We have made great strides but much more needs to be done for the United States to reclaim its pre-eminence in space. We have some of the best minds and dedicated scientists, mathematicians and engineers working on this goal. I know we can achieve it. We must also create a robust space industry now so younger generations of Americans choose a career in space later.

In Congress, we have a lot on our plate right now — reforming our national health care system, stimulating the stagnant economy and creating jobs. I know we can carve out some much-needed time and energy to get this done. National security is our highest priority. We are the strongest nation in the world because we dominate the skies. If we can dominate them in a more economical, efficient manner, we can’t lose.


Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) is chairman of the House Intelligence technical and tactical intelligence subcommittee.