NRO Chief Aims To Restore Technology Development Funding

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The budget for science and technology development programs at the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has been drastically reduced in recent years, and the spy satellite agency’s top official will push to reverse that trend starting with the 2012 federal budget request.

NRO Director Bruce Carlson, a retired Air Force general, now has nine months under his belt leading the development and operation of the nation’s classified spy satellites. In that time, he has focused on some of the agency’s toughest problems, including a relatively young and inexperienced work force and bottlenecks at the U.S. satellite launching ranges.

Though the NRO’s budget is classified, Carlson has said funding for science and technology development programs was cut in half over the last five years. The NRO’s 2012 budget request will begin down a path to fully restoring that funding, Carlson said April 14 at the National Space Symposium here. He did not say whether that correlates to requesting a top-line budget increase for the NRO.

“Over that half a decade, through a number of reductions and taxes and other things, that investment has slackened, and that’s the seed corn of the future,” Carlson said. “We just simply cannot allow that continued erosion in our science and technology base. So when I submit my 2012 budget, it will have a road map to get us up to the level we have historically been at the National Reconnaissance Office.”

Like other U.S. defense and space agencies, the NRO has struggled with cost growth on its satellite programs in recent years, which has exacerbated the budget pressures it faces.

Meanwhile, the NRO over the next 18 months will pursue its most aggressive launch campaign of the last 25 years, Carlson said. This will be a challenge because the nation’s space launch capability has been scaled back in many ways, he said.

“There are a number of very large and very critical reconnaissance satellites going to orbit in the next year, year-and-a-half,” Carlson said. “We simply have to get these off and get them off on time.

“Now we will do that at a time when the launch infrastructure is not what it used to be. Through a series of conscious decisions, this country has downsized the industrial base in the launch business. We’ve downsized the number of locations from which we can launch. We’ve downsized the number of crews to take care of and operate that equipment. We have literally no or very little backup capability in the launch business.”

Moreover, he said, the U.S. government has “made national decisions to spend very little money on the development of new facilities and the recapitalization of the ones that we have. We’re not building new engines. We’re not building new rocket cores. In fact, we’re not even spending money to upgrade the ones that we have.”

Carlson said the NRO is working with Air Force Space Command to stabilize or potentially expand U.S. launch infrastructure, but he provided no specifics.

The NRO is also making changes to how it is staffed. Established as a hybrid Defense Department-intelligence community organization, the NRO is staffed by military and intelligence personnel on loan from their respective organizations. This is sometimes troublesome for program continuity, so Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair recently approved a program that will allow for a limited number of personnel to be directly employed by the NRO, Carlson said.

In addition, the NRO has initiated a scholarship program in which it pays for university graduates with general science and engineering degrees to go back to school for space-specific degrees. In exchange, each student will owe six years of service to the NRO after graduation. The office recently selected its first class of four scholars, to be followed by six next year and eight in the years after that, Carlson said.