WASHINGTON — President Trump’s nominee to run the National Reconnaissance Office, Christopher Scolese, received a warm reception Wednesday from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during his confirmation hearing.
Scolese was most recently the director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who is not a member of the intelligence committee, came to the hearing to introduce Scolese and praise his record as the head of NASA’s largest center.
Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told Scolese that he supports his nomination and plans to ensure it is considered “without delay.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Scolese would be the first political appointee to run the NRO. And he would be taking over the organization amid a brewing debate on whether the administration’s proposed Space Force should be combined with the NRO.
Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) noted that the intelligence committee specifically added the confirmation requirement for NRO directors to “ensure robust and effective oversight of our nation’s overhead intelligence satellite programs.” He said this requirement also reflects the importance of the NRO as a “key member of the intelligence community.” Warner said Scolese’s experience and approach make him “the right fit for the job.”
Warner said he was concerned that the administration would try to merge the NRO with the Space Force, if the new military branch is approved by Congress. But he cautioned that regardless of what reorganization takes place, the NRO will have to collaborate more closely with DoD as space becomes more militarized and adversaries threaten U.S. satellites.
Scolese said keeping the NRO and the Space Force separate is “the correct way to go.”
The NRO supports the intelligence community, DoD, the combatant commanders and civilian agencies, Scolese noted. “It has broad responsibilities that I believe can best be be satisfied with the current arrangement with the NRO separate from the Space Force. At the same time, I recognize if the Space Force is created, the NRO must collaborate with it as it does with the other services and the Air Force today.”
Warner said he was concerned that the NRO needs to change its acquisition process to speed up innovation in the face of growing threats, and that it should leverage commercial space technology. Scolese said he would apply to NRO programs lessons he learned at NASA about using commercially developed satellites that can be “extremely capable and can greatly increase the pace at which we can field missions.”
In prepared testimony, Scolese said the growth of the commercial space industry “provides an opportunity that should be leveraged … in an increasingly competitive and contested environment.”
After Scolese was nominated on Feb. 8, one of the caveats raised was his outsider status, having worked at NASA since 1987. In written answers to questions from the committee, Scolese said his experience managing organizations and developing space systems at NASA — including over 100 space missions in Earth orbit and beyond — directly correlate to the NRO mission. “The NASA and NRO missions are in many ways different, yet they are also similar,” he said. “At a fundamental level, we share some of the same industrial base partners, launch systems, and at times, personnel. … If confirmed, I believe that all of these experiences will benefit the NRO and will provide different perspectives and approaches to accomplishing the mission.”
The NRO was established in 1961 as a joint intelligence community and DoD organization to develop, launch, and operate signals, imagery and communications satellites. Its existence was kept secret until it was declassified in 1992.