U.S. Lawmakers Decry High Cost of Launching Spy Satellites Amid Funding Woes

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SAN ANTONIO — The top two members of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee on Oct. 19 said U.S. launch costs must come down to help the United States maintain its intelligence-gathering capability during a time of reduced budgets.

Addressing the Geoint 2011 conference here, Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.) — respectively the chairman and ranking minority member of the committee — also said U.S. intelligence analysis will need to use fewer, but better-equipped and trained, image analysts.

“If it takes 14 analysts to analyze one [satellite orbit] around the world, well, let’s see if we can do it with 12, or 10,” Rogers said. “Let’s make it so that today’s analyst can be more efficient than the analyst that came before him.”

“We can’t just keep on throwing analysts at the volume of data,” Ruppersberger said.

Both congressmen told their audience that they would do their best to assure that the United States does not repeat the early 1990s mistake of cutting back its intelligence-gathering apparatus too far. They said they hoped new, less-expensive technologies could be introduced so that reduced spending does not translate into a loss of capacity.

In separate speeches, they also said the cost of launching U.S. government satellites is too high. “Skyrocketing costs” of launch vehicles are one of three problems Ruppersberger highlighted, the other two being U.S. technology export regulations and restrictions on the commercial sale of of high-resolution satellite imagery.

“The United States spends more money on rocket launches and faces more delays [in launches] than any other country in the world,” Ruppersberger said. “The problem is not the people, it’s the system. It is inexcusable that U.S. satellite owners go to France and Russia and India to get their satellites launched. We need competition to bring costs down.”

U.S. agencies are now weighing how to reintroduce competition into the U.S. government launch market, and how to reorganize their launch service contracts to put downward pressure on prices.

Denver-based United Launch Alliance was created less than a decade ago by merging the competing rocket lines built by Boeing and Lockheed Martin following a U.S. Defense Department finding that the two companies’ launch service capabilities could not survive on their own. Today the joint venture has a virtual lock on launching U.S. national security satellites.

Ruppersberger also said European companies have been able to win global market share in satellite imagery sales because of looser government restrictions on what imagery can be exported.

European commercial Earth observation companies have disputed this, saying their governments currently follow approximately the same policy as the United States. That policy generally blocks U.S. companies from selling imagery with better than 50-centimeter ground resolution — in other words, sharp enough to discern objects of that size or larger — to non-U.S. government customers.

One U.S. government official said that until recently, U.S. companies were prohibited from building commercial radar satellites capable of delivering images sharper than 3 meters in resolution. That policy has since been modified to enable companies to build radar satellites capable of collecting roughly 1-meter data.

“But at this point you have to wonder whether it’s too late,” this official said. “Five years ago, a U.S. company would not have been permitted to build the TerraSAR-X satellite.”

TerraSAR-X and its twin, TanDEM-X, are currently in orbit. Both were built by Astrium Satellites of Germany in a public-private partnership with the German Aerospace Center, DLR.