Space: The Satellite Support Scam

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January 16, 2006: Even with over a dozen spy satellites, the U.S. Department of Defense is still spending over $60 million this year to get additional images from civilian photo satellites. The civilian birds are doing the more routine stuff, so that the military satellites can do what they do best (high res shots of anywhere on the planet, delivered on short notice). But that extra money isn't a problem, Google Earth, and the shortcomings of the NGA (National Geospatial Intelligence Agency) are. The NGA is responsible for taking the satellite photos, spiffing them up as needed, and getting them to the troops. Trouble is, the stuff still isn't getting to the troops that need it, when they need it. This is made worse by the appearance of Google Earth in the last year, which does manage to get satellite images to anyone, when they need it, with minimal hassle.

For over two decades, the generals, and other officers with access to "satellite imagery," have been complaining about the difficulty they have in getting their hands on this stuff. Hundreds of billions of dollars has been spent on photo satellites since the 1960s, and the troops always seem to get leftovers, if anything. Yet the satellite people regularly con Congress for more money so they can build more satellites, and neat systems that will get the satellite imagery "to the troops." The goods never arrive, or never arrive in time. Generals gave angry testimony before Congress about this non-performance after the 1991 war. The satellite people seemed contrite, and said they would make it right. If given the money to do it. They got the money and the troops got nothing. Now the troops got access to Google Earth, and have seen what they have missed. Seems the software Google Earth uses to get the job done, was first developed for the NGA. But the way the NGA operates, you have to worry about security considerations, and all manner of bureaucratic details. The troops are fighting a war, you say? Well, we still have to deal with security and keeping the paperwork straight. But now the troops are beating NGA over the head with Google Earth, and some in Congress are beginning to listen. But will they listen enough to get NGA to do right by the troops? That seems unlikely. NGA bureaucrats are close at hand, and the angry troops are far away.

 


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