Pentagon to Hand Landsat Program to NASA

White House Hopes Interagency Teamwork Will Stabilize post-Cold War Space Drawdown

The White House hopes cooperative programs among federal agencies will prove a panacea for decreasing military and space budgets; last week the Clinton administration announced two space policies that focus on converging agency responsibilities.

After months of discussion among the Air Force, NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Clinton administration has decided to continue the Landsat remote sensing satellite program, but will transfer responsibilities for acquiring and operating the next Landsat satellite from the Department of Defense to NASA.

Due to budgetary constraints, DoD decided it could no longer support the program it had controlled jointly with NASA, said sources familiar with the decision.

Under the reorganized Landsat program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will operate the satellites and the ground system in cooperation with the Department of Interior's U.S. Geological Survey, which will continue to maintain the national archive of Landsat data. Landsat satellites provide multi-spectral Earth images used for mapping, agriculture, forestry, geological studies, urban planning and coastal management.

The contract Martin Marietta won from the Air Force in October of 1992 to build the Landsat 7 spacecraft, now worth $410 million, will be transferred to NASA. Landsat 7 is scheduled for launch in December of 1998. However, what resolution the satellite will provide is not yet clear, "at least to the contractor," said Martin Marietta spokesman William Shumann.

The Air Force contract had included an option for a high-resolution multi-spectral instrument, or HRMSI, but it has been dropped, according to a NASA source.

Hughes Santa Barbara's contract for building Landsat 7's instruments will also be transferred to NASA. There will be some changes in both these contracts under NASA, said William Townsend, the agency's Deputy Associate Administrator for Mission to Planet Earth Flight Programs. The changes will be aimed at making the program more affordable, he said.

Lanham, Md.-based EOSAT is the exclusive worldwide distributor of remote sensing data from the Landsat satellites, and that will not change under the program's reorganization. But EOSAT has made an agreement to sell Landsat images to its government customers for less than commercial buyers will pay, said EOSAT President and CEO Arturo Silvestrini. Addressing criticism that this is unfair to the commercial market, Silvestrini notes that prices for non-government customers will not be increasing.

Landsat 6, which disappeared after its launch last October, was built to replace Landsat satellites 4 and 5, which were launched in 1982 and 1983. Both are operating well beyond their three-year lives and are the only source of global calibrated high-spatial resolution measurements of the Earth's surface that can be compared to previous data records. Landsat spacecraft have been recording global changes since 1972.

NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said Landsat 7 will provide "essential land remote sensing data critical to the understanding of global climate change and will support a broad range of other important applications."

Rep. George Brown, D-Calif., said in a news release that Vice President Al Gore "deserves credit for preserving the global change component of the Landsat 7 program."

Several companies have plans to put up satellites that will allow them to sell high-resolution remote sensing imagery. Eyeglass International, a new company formed by GDE Systems Inc., Litton's Itek Optical Systems Division and Orbital Sciences Corporation, is one such firm that plans to produce black and white photos that provide more detail than the pictures from Landsat satellites. Current Landsat satellites provide about 30-meter resolution. Eyeglass International seeks to produce one-meter imagery products that can be used for map making, environmental monitoring and site selection, said Orbital's Laura Ayres.

However, what these companies are proposing is different than the multi-spectral, or color, photos that Landsat satellites provide, said Richard DalBellow, assistant director for space at OSTP's technology division. Those satellites can provide higher resolution than the Landsats because they capture less data, he explained. Therefore images from these private satellites will have different uses and are not competitors to Landsat photos, DalBellow said.

In the other government reorganization of responsibilities, the administration said it will save $300 million by the year 2000 by combining the nation's civilian and military weather satellites into a single system to be operated by NOAA. The agency will assume responsibility for operating DoD's polar-orbiting weather satellites, in addition to NOAA's own, said White House science adviser John Gibbons. The European meteorological agency has been invited to participate in the combined operation, NOAA Administrator D. James Baker announced.

Under the plan, DOD will handle buying new satellites and other equipment and NASA will handle the development of new technology. "NASA will do what it does best: develop advanced technologies which will produce cutting-edge science that may then be transferred into operational uses," said NASA chief Goldin.

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