25 Years of Showing the Way

NGA Director VADM Robert Sharp reflects on the 25-year history of the agency and the ‘Moonshot’ operational effort to face a future as challenging as our nation’s first journey to the moon


Just over 50 years ago, the United States achieved the seemingly impossible by putting a man on the moon. It was a feat of human innovation, collaboration, agility and an inclusive approach to complex problem-solving, combining individual contributions from thousands of Americans—from the President of the United States to, famously, a custodian working in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

This event united a nation, as the country gathered together to witness history unfold one small step and giant leap at a time. Though I was pretty young at the time of the landing, I still recall crowding around an old black-and-white television with family, neighbors, and friends to witness the historic event. It’s a memory I hold on to dearly, colored by adventure and excitement and the spirit of teamwork.

Two of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s heritage organizations, the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center and the Army Map Service, were part of the team that got a man to the moon. Countless charts and maps created by the two military cartographic agencies detailed everything from lunar orbits to the moon’s mountainous terrain and represented the pinnacle of space-age cartographic science at a time when national pride and scientific advancement were inextricably linked.

It was a collective accomplishment spurred by the fear of Soviet space dominance. In 1961, as Americans reeled from Soviet success with the Sputnik satellite and Yuri Gagarin’s orbiting of Earth, President John F. Kennedy pledged that an American would be on the moon by the end of the decade. This was about more than scientific discovery. The space race was meant to prove the superiority of capitalism versus communism and the superiority of American innovation, scientific expertise, and the cultural will of the people. Indeed, by the end of the decade, Neil Armstrong was able to step off the lander and declare his accomplishment, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But make no mistake—the true foundation of the U.S. space program was driven by competition between world superpowers.

A quarter of a century after the moon landing, the United States quietly embarked on another effort, which would again bring together the remarkable talents of Americans from across the military and government. And, the same mapping, cartography, and analysis talents that worked so hard to support the Apollo mission would finally share one roof. On Nov. 27, 1995, Congressional leaders received a letter announcing the intent to create a National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

The letter, co-signed by the Secretary of Defense, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated their belief that the consolidation of imagery intelligence and mapping support into a single agency would “improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency” provided to both national and military customers.

The NIMA concept grew out of post-Desert Storm studies examining imagery and mapping shortfalls. The Burnett Panel, convened by then-DCI Robert Gates in 1992 to review imagery support in the Gulf War, identified dissemination and tasking authorities as particular stress points, suggesting integrated imagery and mapping assets as a solution. This idea, proposed as a National Imagery Agency (NIA), stalled—being seen as too much, too fast by multiple stakeholders.

By 1995, following additional studies and changes in national-level leadership, the concept of a combined imagery and mapping agency took on new life. Incoming DCI John Deutch was vocal about his belief in the NIA concept and, once confirmed, convened an NIA Steering Group and Task Force. By August, the concept had taken shape and, by late November, had enough support for the NIMA letter to be sent to Congress. In the following months, from November 1995 to October 1996, a flurry of legislative, administrative, and logistical work went into translating NIMA from concept to reality.

Ultimately, in bringing together our nation’s most capable imagery and geospatial assets, NIMA impacted security across the globe. NIMA worked closely with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission to provide a seamless, near-global snapshot of data that remains a cornerstone of modern geospatial mapping and measurement. They took on difficult modernization efforts, including digitization and the expanded use of commercial imagery.

Further innovations included the development of integrated production cells, which fused imagery analysis and geospatial operations to provide unprecedented customer support. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NIMA contributed to homeland security, helping safeguard events in this country and overseas, assisting the armed forces’ work in Iraq and Afghanistan and responding to the dynamic battlespace of the Global War on Terror with agility and inventiveness. They also instituted a new intelligence discipline—GEOINT.

With President George W. Bush’s signing of the 2004 Defense Authorization Bill, NIMA was renamed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), a reflection of the new GEOINT products and evolving collective identity. Despite that name change, Oct. 1, 1996, remains the date that is celebrated as the anniversary of NGA.

In light of that legacy, celebrating our 25th anniversary this year seems entirely fitting. It is a time of great change and great challenge, a time in which nations, our respective agencies, and the GEOINT community writ large are facing pressures, changes, and threats we had not fully anticipated. But, I also believe it is a time of great hope and great opportunity.

The success of NIMA’s efforts was due to the dedicated women and men who showed up every day, keeping mission needs met while forging a strong, unified whole out of diverse and disparate pieces. They met the challenges of their day with the same spirit of skill, innovation, and persistence that fueled our mission to the moon in the 1960s. That creative and agile spirit still lives in us, now Team NGA, as we continue our predecessor’s mission—and we take it a step further—to Know the Earth and Understand the World, ultimately to Show the Way.

NGA’s next steps as we move forward into this year and beyond are distilled into the agency’s most important operational effort, our “Moonshot”—and it’s not a coincidence that we’ve used that term to describe our effort. It is a powerful concept that evokes the best of what our country can be and achieve and reminds us that our success—much like the moon landing—depends on our innovation, collaboration, agility, and inclusive approach to complex problem-solving.

The Moonshot is our roadmap toward a common goal—our commitment to deliver trusted GEOINT with the speed, accuracy, and precision required to hold at risk the strategic forces our adversaries use to project power and threaten the United States and our allies. The effort is organized around four mission imperatives, which help define the investments we must make to shorten the timeline it takes us to achieve our Moonshot. First, we must assure our nation’s commercial and military teammates have the most accurate positioning, navigation, timing, and targeting data available. Second, we must automate our collection strategies, tradecraft, and tools to provide near real-time responses to customer requests and allow for rapid tasking, discovery, and delivery of GEOINT. Third, we must enable data sharing and processing across our academic, industry, international, and military colleagues and ensure compliance with GEOINT data standards. Fourth, we must update and modernize our analytic workflow by integrating new algorithms and automating analytic tools to enhance productivity and distribution of GEOINT products. NGA’s unique mission set, such as our aeronautical and maritime safety of navigation data, is vital to the nation’s security—we’re relied on to provide the best GEOINT. That’s why these investments are critical.

Achieving our goals will require the entire enterprise to come together and entail changes in who we hire, what we train, how we build expertise, what our teams look like, what products we develop, how we deliver data and analysis, how technology helps us, how we collect information, how we can use what we collect in multiple ways, how we leverage information across domains, and more.

The entire enterprise includes our colleagues in industry and academia. The contributions they bring to our Moonshot efforts are crucial. That’s why we’re constructing NGA’s new campus in St. Louis to best position the agency to collaborate with geospatial scientists and innovators who may not happen to have a security clearance. The campus, currently under construction on the city’s north side, is a short distance from the region’s leading universities and innovation hubs, and areas to facilitate collaboration with external teammates are being designed and built into the facility. St. Louis is positioning itself to be a leader in geospatial sciences, and I’m excited that NGA will be right in the middle of it.

Today we face a national security landscape of great complexity—to include a global pandemic. Although our competitors are not nearly as clearly defined as they were during the space race, competition remains a key driver for the agency’s mission. NGA faces serious challenges to our quest to deliver high-quality, high-confidence data several orders of magnitude faster than we do today. Just as with the mission to the moon, there is real risk involved at all levels. Our nation is depending on us to rethink processes we’ve had in place for decades.

Everyone has a role, and everyone can make a difference in where we are going and how we get there. And, by everyone, I mean every single member of NGA along with every member of NGA’s close-knit team—industry, academia, international allies, civil, and military. This can and should be an exciting time to be a part of NGA and the GEOINT mission.

In the coming year, as we celebrate the establishment of NIMA and the agency’s 25th anniversary, we have the chance to reflect and celebrate where we’ve been and the people and organizations who have helped us get there. It’s also, though, a chance to reflect on where we are and to reimagine where we’re going. Facing a future landscape as challenging as that first journey to the moon, I’m confident that we can—together—advance by giant leaps for the safety and security of our great nation.

Posted in: Features   Tagged in: April 2021

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