In April, U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair and Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed a plan for collecting electro-optical satellite imagery that entails procuring highly capable spacecraft while buying more imagery from U.S. commercial data providers. The plan, which follows in the wake of the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), the failed effort by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office to modernize its aging overhead imagery collection network, has received mixed reaction on Capitol Hill.

In July, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence weighed in with language in the 2010 intelligence authorization bill that calls for buying smaller, cheaper satellites to satisfy national security imagery needs. The Senate bill sets the stage for battle in conference with the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, where the DNI plan has support from key lawmakers including Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.).

Ruppersberger’s subcommittee prepared a report last year that questioned whether the White House policy mandating that U.S. national security users rely on commercial imagery to the maximum practical extent was being followed. More generally, the report, based on what Ruppersberger characterized as a series of tabletop discussions with U.S. government and industry officials, criticized what it said was a lack of an overarching strategy guiding U.S. space activities.

The report, which Ruppersberger hopes will influence policy decisions by the new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, also hits the U.S. export control regime, which the lawmaker says is undermining national security by making it difficult for American companies to compete internationally.

A former Baltimore County executive, Ruppersberger says he brings a management approach to his oversight role on both the House Appropriations Committee, which funds NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the intelligence panel, where he helps oversee the nation’s secret satellite programs.

Ruppersberger, who has called for doubling U.S. research and development investments in space technology, spoke recently with Space News editor Warren Ferster and staff writer Amy Klamper.

How important is it to have a comprehensive national strategy for space activity?
You need to have a roadmap and you need to have a plan. You can have a lot of councils; you can have a lot of people. The bottom line is that the way it stands now, you have the Defense Department, which probably has the most influence, then you have the DNI, and you have NASA and you have NOAA; and you need to have more collaboration between all those groups. And you need a direct line to an ultimate decision maker, with more involvement from a congressional point of view, because we provide the funding.

What is the greatest challenge facing the space acquisition community today?
We’ve had some major failures in the space industry. Our big recommendation in the report was that we were giving out, in some cases, sole-source contracts to the big boys, and what we found is they were doing research and development after they got the contracts. So there needs to be more money and more time spent in the research and development phase before we get to the manufacturing phase. If you really look at manufacturing, so long as you have contract specifications, there shouldn’t be any mistakes at that point.

Alden Munson, deputy DNI for future capabilities, has tied the FIA failure to a misguided government effort to create competition where none had existed. But there was another reason. The acquisition team didn’t have the experience on the government side. And that was a bigger issue. If you look at FIA as an example, that was one of the biggest problems that occurred. There are a lot of very competent people who’ve been in space for a long time, but that doesn’t mean they’re totally the experts of where we need to be, because they’re in a culture that wants to do certain things in a certain way.

What is your concern about a lack of a comprehensive U.S. space strategy as it relates to intelligence satellite programs?
We give these contracts and that’s when they start research and development, and all of a sudden they’re learning as they’re going instead of having a roadmap before you start manufacturing. A lot of times we build because we’ve done it this way for a long time. But we have to build for the mission, for the kind of intelligence we need from these satellites in regard to the terrorism issue. But we also have to look at the threats of Russia and China. And we have to tie in now to other uses, like radar versus electro-optical imagery.

The DNI’s electro-optical imagery plan was not very well received by some of your counterparts in the Senate. What’s your view?
I think it’s a positive plan. We cannot afford to not look at commercial solutions, if for no other reason than cost. We can’t afford to do everything, but we can afford to work differently and better and more collaboratively than we are right now. Exquisite systems are a workhorse that we must move forward with, but for which we can’t keep doing the same things we’ve done in the past. We have to listen to our generals and our signals intelligence people, and we have to build to the missions.

Congress last year squashed a DNI-Pentagon plan to buy a pair of commercial-like imaging satellites, yet it appears that the Defense Department hasn’t abandoned the idea. What’s your reaction?
They’re going back to the old way of not considering commercial data. I think that’s wrong. I think there are certain satellites that should not be commercial. But I’m told by leadership in the Defense Department that they were moving forward with some of the commercial aspects even though there were a lot of senior leaders that had an issue with it. If it’s done right, it provides better security, better competition, which is extremely important, yet you’re not investing the money and you are not spending the time. Why do we need to own and spend the money to buy the satellites when we know that Europe and our allies are getting exactly what they need and they get it cheaper and on time from the commercial sector? If it doesn’t work, then we haven’t invested a lot, either. But we know it works because it’s working in Europe.

You’ve taken up the cause of reforming the U.S. export control system and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) that govern it. What precipitated this interest?
One of the issues that kept coming up in our tabletop discussions is the issue of ITAR and how it is negatively impacting the U.S. space industry and our national security. People in the space business can’t compete any more and they’re going out of business. In 1998 when satellites were shifted from the Commerce Department to State Department control, we had 73 percent of the space industry in the United States. Right now I think we’re at 27 percent and as we speak, we are slipping.

Attempts at reform have failed in the past. Do you have any reason to believe the current efforts will succeed?
A lot of people in power don’t want to give up turf or jurisdiction. The good news is that when we talked to [House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman] Howard Berman (D-Calif.), he stepped up to the plate. He pointed out what we should do and why ITAR needs to change. And we were able to get new language in the House foreign relations authorization bill this year for changing ITAR. It’s really taking space off the U.S. Munitions List. The checks and balances mean the administration has to come back to Congress and justify why certain items should be removed, because there are some areas on which we can never compromise our security. But it turns the whole issue around and allows U.S. space companies to compete again.

So what is the next step?
We really have to have a strategy for the Senate now to make sure that we can get this passed as soon as possible. Every day we wait is a day we take one step back. I feel we’re on the right track and hopefully we’ll get the president behind us. The thing you have to watch though is that the public has to understand we’re still going to have security. This is not a huge change. It’s a change that makes sense and can turn things around the right away.