After the spectacular failure of the last spy satellite effort, the administration of President George W. Bush is trying once again to put a new set of government eyes in space through a $1.7 billion project approved last week whose goal is to have two new satellites in orbit by 2012.
The key players involved this time - including officials from the Department of Defense and the national intelligence director's office - said in interviews this week that they recognized that the government could not afford another stumble.
The last project, called Future Imagery Architecture, was canceled in 2005 after indecision over what kind of capabilities it should have, which delayed progress and drove up the cost. It was canceled in 2005, before even a single satellite was launched, wasting at least $4 billion.
"We have to have the capability," John Young Jr., who is under secretary of defense, said Wednesday, referring to the federal government's need to gather imagery for its spies and troops and government decision makers.
But already there has been a dispute over whether the government, under the program now called Broad Area Space-Based Imagery Collector, should be building two new satellites of its own or acquiring images from private companies.
"It is déja vu," said J. Christian Kessler, who retired this year from a State Department post where he helped oversee federal space satellite policy. "We are already on the path of repeating the failure that cost us billions the last time."
The goal of the new Defense Department satellite system is not to get the most detailed images possible; that task is handled by other classified satellites already in space.
Instead, the new federal system will have a central mirror the exact size of those already being placed into space by two private companies, GeoEye of Dulles, Virginia, and Digital Globe of Longmont, Colorado.
Once in orbit, the satellites will be used to take shots of large areas, for mapping or watching troop movements or other broader-area tasks, not unlike what the commercial companies now sell for services like Google Maps.
The newest GeoEye satellite, which was launched Sept. 6 and is scheduled to be activated this weekend, is designed to take images of an area as large as Texas in a single day, with a resolution strong enough to see objects the size of a soccer ball on a field.
The federal government is already covering half of the $502 million cost of the GeoEye project, as part of a program intended to stimulate the commercial satellite industry.
Young, in an internal Defense Department memorandum, acknowledged last month that by building its own broad-area satellites, the federal government would not be honoring a 2003 presidential directive to "rely to the maximum practical extent on U.S. commercial remote sensing space capabilities."
He also cited "competing and inconsistent concerns" raised by the different federal agencies involved in the project, like whether the National Reconnaissance Office, which was in charge of the last failed satellite project, should again be put in charge of overseeing the purchase of these new satellites, as is now planned.
Kessler said that this kind of friction, expressed by the top Pentagon official in charge of procurement, was an ominous sign for a project just getting under way.
But Young and his counterpart at the Office of the Director for National Intelligence said this effort was fundamentally different from the previous one, as the contractor would be held to a fixed price and the satellites being built were based on proven technology.
"FIA was a catastrophe," said Alden Munson Jr., the deputy director of national intelligence for acquisition, referring to the previous satellite project. "But the two bear essentially no resemblance to each other. As with this project it is like going down to the Chevy dealer to buy a Chevy."
The exact specifications of the new federal satellites have not been released.
6 months ago