When Pioneers Get in the Way of Progress
Two new NASA remote-sensing satellites named Lewis and Clark appear to be pushing the agency toward a showdown with commercial aerospace with commercial aerospace
It was Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's pulchritudinous descriptions of the American West that sent colonists rolling across the open American frontier -- great for manifest destiny, but rough on buffaloes and American Indians.
In the name of these explorers, NASA plans to launch two remote-sensing spacecraft that it says will unlock commercial opportunities for the American aerospace industry. That's great for the Big Space Frontier, but it could be rough on commercial aerospace companies.
NASA's Lewis and Clark satellites could end up competing with a smaller, but growing sector of the space industry, the fledgling remote sensing market -- which could be worth up to $2 billion by 2000.
Meanwhile, the small-satellite industry is eager to provide spacecraft that carry the remote sensors, capable of delivering near-spy-satellite quality images.
The contracts for NASA's Lewis and Clark remote sensing spacecraft were announced June 8, and controversy trailed close behind.
Teams led by CTA Inc. of Rockville, Md., and TRW Inc. of Redondo Beach, Calif., were chosen to build, launch and operate the two small satellites that will carry remote sensing instruments.
Detailed images from the spacecrafts' high-resolution sensors can be used for environmental monitoring, land-use planning and natural resource management.
Controversy surrounds a three-meter optical sensor on CTA's Clark, because it will be provided by WorldView Imaging Corp., a company planning its own commercial venture.
Since the same instrument will fly on the WorldView system, which CTA also has a hand in, other firms say WorldView will be able to charge NASA for the costs of developing the sensor.
The firm would then be able to charge less for its services since it would need to recoup fewer dollars.
Gilbert Rye, president of WorldView competitor Eyeglass International, said the CTA award looks like government subsidizing a competitor.
He wants the WorldView payload off the satellite.
"NASA claims it is trying to stimulate the market -- well, we didn't ask them to," said Rye.
The award comes at an especially bad time as firms are trying to raise capital they need to put their systems in place, he said.
But the space agency argues it will not compete with industry since it does not plan to capture large-scale imagery and will focus on transmitting site-specific images, said Sam Venneri, director for the remote sensing division of NASA's Office of Advanced Concepts and Technology. He attributes much of the dissent to sour grapes; seven teams bid on the project.
The remote-sensing market is worth about $400 million worldwide today. By the turn of the century it will grow to more than $2 billion, according to Commerce Department estimates.
More aerospace firms have jumped into the market since the Clinton administration decided to allow the commercial sale of satellite-imaging services.
The Pentagon had been reluctant to let firms sell high-resolution satellite images for national security reasons.
But as foreign companies announced plans to provide detailed images from space, the government realized American firms would be shut out of the burgeoning market if they could not compete.
Firms can now operate and sell satellite systems that are capable of shooting pictures of objects as small as a car.
Following the March policy change, two new companies formed and were given licenses to operate remote sensing satellite systems.
Lockheed's Space Imaging Inc., of Sunnyvale, Calif., and Eyeglass International of Dulles, Va., both plan to offer one-meter-resolution black and white images by 1997.
Eyeglass, which is made up of Orbital Science Corp., GDE Systems Inc., and Litton's Itek Optical Systems Division, recently reached a deal with a Saudi Arabian firm that would provide almost the entire $150 million needed for funding.
WorldView, of Livermore, Calif., received a license last year to provide satellite imagery by late 1995 and Ball Corp.'s Aerospace and Communications Group of Broomfield, Co., expects to hear in September if the Commerce Department will grant them a license.
Reston, Va.-based Spot Image Corp. and Eosat of Lanham, Md., already offer images with 10- to 20-meter resolution.
The industry will only support one or two high-resolution remote sensing systems, one industry source said.
"He who can attract the wealthiest investors, get up first, and get the data on the ground in a user-friendly form" will be the big winner, he said.
However, William French, executive director of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing in Bethesda, Md., argues it will take more than one system to provide all the types of data needed, because different sensors capture data used for different functions.
The small-satellite industry, which will provide most of the light-weight spacecraft that fly the sensing instruments, is also looking hungrily at the market's potential.
"Next to telecommunications satellites, remote sensing represents the largest commercially viable market for smallsat makers," said Jill Stern, vice president for Washington's International Small Satellite Organization.
Smaller, cheaper spacecraft are an ideal vehicle for carrying the lightweight sensors that now offer detailed imaging.
Remote sensing technologies have significantly matured to where high-power equipment is no longer necessary to make clear images, said Clark Nelson of Spot.
Now the key is to find ways to package and process the data in a meaningful fashion, said Mike Miller, general manager for Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology.
"Value-added software that will make the Earth-observation data usable is just as important as the visual images themselves," Nelson advised.
Companies that target the needs of the end-user may reap the most reward from the remote sensing industry.
If firms can successfully market a wide variety of applications for their satellite images -- from urban planning to real estate to emergency management -- remote sensing could be more fruitful than even the projections suggest.