Landsat

With NASA, the Earth observation history is one of R&D—advancing technology as a mission. It was not NASA's mission to maintain operational systems. In weather satellites, a policy regime had been established in the 1960s. While there were many tensions and issues subsequently, the regime of development-use and who paid for what was largely sustained. There was a natural user agency that provided a market pull on the technology. Landsat proved much more problematic.

Landsat in the 1970s was shown to be useful to researchers, as well as operating agencies such as NOAA, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Interior, and others [13]. But none of these agencies wanted Landsat enough to pay for its long-term maintenance. With the success of the communications satellite (discussed below), there was a model of utilization and hope in the Carter Administration that Landsat might be "privatized." The transfer of control of Landsat to NOAA in 1979 was seen as temporary. The commitment of the Reagan Administration to privatization of Landsat was even stronger for ideological reasons.

In 1984, Congress passed legislation that set policy for transfer of Landsat to the private sector [14]. A joint venture of Hughes and Radio Corporation of America (RCA), called Earth Observation Satellite (EOSAT), won a competition to be the designated agent for use and operational control. NASA continued to advance the technology. Meanwhile, government policy for use lagged. As old Landsats reached the end of their lives, new ones came on orbit. EOSAT received a federal subsidy for the transition to private control, which it supplemented with private fees from customers.

By the time George H. W. Bush became president in 1989, it was clear that EOSAT would not make enough money to take over from the government. No one agency wanted to finance the operating system. NASA was wondering why it should pay for advancing Landsat when the whole question of user control and operation was in limbo.

In 1991, Department of Defense (DOD) found Landsat images useful to planning and executing maneuvers during the 1991 Gulf War. This was in spite of the fact that Landsat resolution had not advanced as it might have, because it was held back by national security restrictions during the Cold War. DOD and spy agencies did not want the U.S.S.R. to know how strong was the resolution capability the United States possessed for its spy satellites, so it restricted resolution of civilian satellites. But other countries, especially France, had taken advantage of Landsat's "lag," to develop satellites with stronger resolution and were in a position to capture technological and commercial leadership in the field. With France showing ever better resolution, and the Cold War ending, the resolution restriction was lifted.

Hence, policy was made to keep Landsat going, make it more competitive, and full control was returned to the public sector. The Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 put Landsat 7 and beyond under joint control of NASA and DOD, with the two agencies splitting the bill in half. Practically everyone agreed the Landsat's continuing data sets were valuable, now going back 20 years. However, in 1993 DOD and NASA disagreed strongly on the next Landsat to be developed, Landsat 7, in terms of requirements and budget. DOD dropped out of the partnership, agreeing to pay only a modest separation cost.

In 1994, the Clinton Administration developed yet another policy regime, involving NASA, NOAA, and the Department of Interior [15]. Landsat was folded into NASA's "MTPE" and the three agencies' roles in the inter-agency U.S. Global Change Research Program. By now, a commercial remote sensing sector had emerged that was able to make money translating and selling data from Landsat and other public systems via licenses from the government. Landsat 7 thus was justified as useful for NASA's R&D mission and the other agencies' user missions. It went up in 1999.

The Landsat issue came on the agenda of President George W. Bush in connection with a multi-purpose weather satellite system set in motion by Clinton that was called the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). It was decided to guarantee data continuity beyond Landsat 7 by putting Landsat-type sensors on NPOESS, a DOD-NOAA-NASA satellite system being developed primarily to provide operational weather information for both military and civilian needs.

However, it became clear in 2005 that NPOESS would not be launched in time to prevent a serious gap in Landsat data, since Landsat 7 was soon reaching the end of its useful life. In this year, the White House decided to replace the NPOESS policy with a new policy that directed NASA and the Department of Interior (U.S. Geological Survey) to build and launch a dedicated Landsat-type satellite that could go into orbit by 2009, much sooner than NPOESS.

What the Landsat saga illustrates is a policy quandary still not resolved. NASA has the mandate for R&D in Earth observational satellites. The issue has to do with expensive operational satellite systems. The weather field is well-established. Landsat, on the other hand, has always been an orphan from a user-agency perspective—too valuable to let go, but apparently not valuable enough to make it the priority of a specific user agency to run. Meanwhile, NASA goes beyond R&D, developing and also operating.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration plays this dual role in more than one field of Earth observation. Due to its legislated activity in the upper atmosphere area, and historic lead agency role in the ozone depletion field, it has assumed a de facto monitoring role for global compliance with the Montreal Protocol. It determines whether the ozone health of the planet is improving or not as a result of that treaty.

Hence, the Landsat story is tortuous from a policy standpoint. It reveals graphically a larger question: who should run (and finance) long-term operating systems in Earth observation technologies outside the weather field? The issue has not been resolved. It is not just a challenge for space policy; it is an environmental policy challenge also, as environmental policy increasingly comes to rely on the monitoring of the planet's health from space.

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