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Civilian Agencies Implement the Bush Space Policy
Ralph J. Thompson

This past April, President Bush authorized a national policy establishing guidance for the federal government's use of commercial remote-sensing space capabilities. The fundamental goal of this policy is to advance and protect U.S. national interests by maintaining the nation's leadership in satellite activities and enhancing the American remote sensing industry. A robust U.S. satellite industry can augment government capabilities, contribute to civilian agency missions and enhance the international competitiveness of U.S. industry.

While the policy applies to all government remote-sensing needs, it specifically recognizes that civilian agencies have wide-ranging interests in commercial remote-sensing systems, data, products and services. It directs civilian agencies to "submit a plan for establishing an effective long-term partnership between U.S. civilian agencies and U.S. industry that supports the goals of this policy." These goals include advancing and protecting national security and foreign policy interests by maintaining the nation's leadership in satellite activities.

Although U.S. civilian agencies have historically made some use of commercial remote sensing space observations, no integrated approach has been developed to optimize an acquisition strategy for civilian agency use. With the new policy, civilian agencies are receiving a co-equal role with the military and intelligence communities in ensuring direct civilian agency participation.

A robust U.S. satellite industry can augment government capabilities, contribute to civilian agency missions and enhance the international competitiveness of U.S. industry.

Under the policy, the secretaries of Commerce and the Interior and the administrator of NASA must develop an implementation plan to consider civilian agency requirements for, and improve access to, commercial remote-sensing products and services. An interagency working group was convened to develop the plan, with oversight provided by a review board comprised of Charles Groat, director of the U.S. Geological Survey; Gregory Withee, assistant administrator for the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and Ghassem Asrar, associate administrator for the Earth Science Enterprise, NASA.

The working group used previous studies to summarize a range of the agencies' crosscutting applications to reflect the current value of remote sensing; it also identified potential opportunities that would benefit from more aggressive and coordinated data acquisition processes. Common areas of interest are found in agriculture, emergency management, environmental monitoring, homeland security, mapping, natural resources management, transportation, and weather and climate.

The working group gave primary consideration to the following: civilian requirements for imagery and geospatial information that can be effectively provided by commercial remote sensing space capabilities; allocation of resources to meet those requirements; mechanisms for interagency coordination to meet requirements, including coordination with the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), traditionally the military's mapping branch; and feasibility of designating a single agency as a civilian procurement agent.

Although this plan is designed to benefit civil agencies for purchasing or otherwise obtaining commercial space-based products, it does not preclude an agency from contracting directly with a commercial data provider to satisfy its needs. Also, as civilian agencies rely on remote-sensing data from sources such as airborne sensors and value-added processors, the plan does not compromise the agency's freedom to consider such remote-sensing data sources.

With guidance from its review board, the working group recommended a governance model for interagency coordination that focuses on civilian agency needs while sharing execution across multiple agencies. This "civil-focus, shared-execution" model represents a framework whereby individual agencies agree to collect and share their requirements for remote-sensing products to support collective interests. These requirements will be consolidated (where appropriate) into a single procurement strategy, strengthening negotiation of prices and licensing considerations that support shared-use opportunities. The acquired products will be stored in a common library for access and re-use by other civilian agency users.

This governance model also takes advantage of resources and infrastructure of several civilian agencies to ensure successful execution of these processes, where the agencies agree to share responsibilities; individual agency assets can thus benefit all. For example, one agency may be well-positioned to provide contractual services for data acquisition, or to assist in maintaining a library of acquired products to support secondary users. The agencies will also collaborate with NIMA to gain maximum benefit of their expertise and infrastructure. Although the data requirements of the each civilian agency may be substantially different (either in geographic location and scope, or in product characteristics) from those of NIMA, the mechanisms used for acquisition and subsequent product preservation and distribution can provide valuable experience and opportunity for collaboration.

Implementation of this model requires extensive coordination at several levels. The working group recommends a committee of department-level executives from the agencies to meet annually to provide high-level oversight and review progress. The group also recommends that a steering committee composed of agency managers provides more frequent guidance on key processes and priorities. Finally, the group recommends the formation of a standing interagency working group composed of senior agency managers and technical experts to coordinate frequently with agency personnel engaged in operational activities.

The civil agencies are excited about the opportunity to apply this policy to the benefitof their users, while appreciating the difficulties that lie ahead. A robust requirements process, a consolidated procurement strategy and product licenses that allow shared use are realistic goals that will require unprecedented cooperation and coordination among the civilian agencies and with NIMA. The release of this policy provides an opportunity to realize those benefits.


Thompson is chief at the U.S. Geological Survey's EROS Data Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. He chaired the interagency working group convened to investigate issues and develop a plan to guide implementation of the Commercial Remote Sensing Policy on behalf of the civilian agency community. For details on the new policy, visit crsp.usgs.gov.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in this section by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of AGI, its staff or its member societies.

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