In the 90s, following the end of the Cold War and in the aftermath of Desert Storm, space systems were heralded publicly as instrumental in the coalition’s success. For the first time in history, CNN and other news outlets could broadcast events to the world in real time over communication satellites. But it was the U.S. military that stood to benefit the most from reconnaissance satellites for both war-fighting and coalition-building as they leveraged this new national asset, originally only intended for senior-level statecraft. America now had aircraft and precision weapons guided by GPS to coordinates identified on exploited satellite imagery. The U.S. government eventually merged a handful of classified organizations to make the most of these new technologies for the military, including organizations like the venerated black world Defense Dissemination System and established what is now called the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), an agency within the Defense Department that analyzes and disseminates space derived intelligence for the U.S. government. As the evolution and adoption of space technology has occurred over time, commercial companies with parallel interests have been encouraged to develop and sell space and space data systems to the government and now, on the commercial market.
It has taken just over 20 years since NGA was created, but it’s clear that the green shoots first seen by the public during Operation Enduring Freedom have given rise to a wildly robust culture unimagined by its earliest visionaries. And, as is often the case with maverick innovation, it is clear that today we are poised to benefit from that growth in ways that we perhaps didn’t expect.
Despite being scoffed at by the Washington elite, NGA has moved to leverage the commercial space systems that have become a key piece of its infrastructure. As commercial prices decrease while quality increases through competition, commercial systems and services have secured the confidence and support of important facets of the government, including the key member of the all-important Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Roy Blunt.
Senator Blunt’s growing rhetorical advocacy has translated into tangible support that bolsters the industries around the small satellite ecosystem. As recent events have transpired throughout the first half of 2020, data derived from commercial platforms have demonstrated considerable utility, making older, more exquisite space systems nearly obsolete. The implications of this shift say less about the current commercial companies’ data delivery and point more to the operational reliability of their geospatial information.
Often in times of great distress, innovations come to light that serve as the seeds of the future, and this current crisis is no different. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, an unclassified memo to Congress reported on how the NGA has not only figured out how to operate through the crisis, but to flourish. “The COVID epidemic has been a real wakeup call for our intelligence community,” said Senator Blunt. In many cases, the IC has struggled to adapt to life without access to classified facilities. “One of the real bright spots that I’ve seen has been NGA’s embrace of secure unclassified work from home,” Senator Blunt continues. “Robert Cardillo, former NGA director, was the visionary leader who built foundational tools for a time like this.”
As space data becomes increasingly integral to our national security and operational utility, it is key and essential to take a closer look at the industry that was largely constructed behind closed doors. The agency’s next generation facilities, especially the Geospatial hub under construction in St. Louis that was created under Cardillo’s leadership and backed by Blunt, have been instrumental in its success. The aforementioned limited distribution but unclassified memo obtained for the purposes of this article indicates further progress, reporting that the NGA was able to put up unprecedented numbers to support the military, civil and first responders during these shelter at home times. This includes the exploitation of over 90,000 images tracking over 620,000 objects of interest—all using imagery collected from low cost and off-the-shelf unclassified satellites.
It’s important to note that in the early years of this space data revolution, there were many loud voices that feared there was such a thing as too much imagery in the hands of opportunistic analysts. Today, we have pivoted operations to automated processing with artificial intelligence and advanced machine learning algorithms in lieu of a front line of analysts. By all visible measures, the current director, Admiral Bob Sharp, has taken the vision of Cardillo’s initiative and made it truly operational and enduring.
With an eye on the future of our country and looking to continue his state’s stake in it, Senator Blunt is clear that “the economic bow wave of new geospatial jobs for the [St Louis] region will ripple through and expand economic opportunities” throughout the rest of the country. With the full support of its $1.7B facility now in full swing, it’s also clear that NGA and Missourians like Blunt get it. One can only hope that other leaders in Washington can see America’s commercial space future just as clearly. Our economic leadership in data analysis, artificial intelligence, digital map creation and precision agriculture depends on it.
As the world continues to leverage the space domain to improve all life on Earth, it’s now irrefutable that the 21st century will be about machines—and then humans—operating and living in space. For the United States to take full advantage of this space utility, however, it must continue to foster a relationship between government space needs and commercial systems and services. We cannot sacrifice the uniquely American values of transparency and free market competition for an unnatural pre-occupation with secrecy that demanded the creation of the NGA twenty years ago. Beginning with Robert Cardillo and continuing with today’s leadership, the NGA is leveraging its visionaries to make that happen. Congress should not retreat from the progress it’s made and must open its ears to the voices of key leaders like Senator Blunt, who are clear-eyed about the future. We can only hope that other national leaders can be just as bold.