Embracing Commercial Space

NRO Director Betty Sapp talks commercial launch, small sats, and new contracting methods


The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is taking full advantage of emerging commercial space and information technology capabilities including launch, NRO Director Betty Sapp declared in a Wednesday keynote at GEOINT 2016.

NRO already has contracted for launches from SpaceX, Sapp said, but did not provide any details of the missions since much of NRO’s work is classified. Founded by celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX recently broke United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) longtime monopoly on the U.S. national security launch business by winning a contract to launch an Air Force GPS satellite. ULA, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, declined to bid on that contract.

Sapp praised SpaceX for having success with what she characterized as an “unconventional” approach to satellite launch. SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket has a first stage powered by nine relatively small engines, a design scheme that raised skepticism before the rocket ran off a string of successful missions.

“We have bought launches from SpaceX—they’re a great partner for us,” Sapp said, adding the company has “challenged the conventional wisdom in the launch industry with great success.”

Launch is just one of the areas in which NRO is leveraging commercial investment and innovation. The agency is also taking advantage of the small satellite revolution, which coupled with the emergence of low-cost launch options is enabling missions NRO previously would not undertake, Sapp said.

The NRO is known for building large, unique, and very complex and expensive satellites to carry out its missions. But Sapp said the agency is now flying satellites of all sizes, including cube sats. Although the NRO initially used cube sats as a low-cost means of testing promising technologies in space, it is now using them for operational missions, Sapp said.

“Some missions still require ‘big bird’ type systems,” she said. “But others demand a very different approach. Some missions, for example, drive small, distributed systems flying low…Yes, the NRO does small.”

Meanwhile, the NRO has established a joint office with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in an effort to determine how to best leverage the next generation commercial remote sensing industry that is employing low-cost satellites and advances in data processing capabilities.

“The new office is still in its infancy and we’re still developing many of the details,” Sapp said. “But it is a great opportunity for us to take a holistic approach to be sure we’re taking maximum advantage of everything out there available to us.”

Commercial practices and capabilities have found their way into nearly every aspect of the NRO mission, Sapp said. Whereas previously the NRO custom-built unique ground systems for each individual mission, the agency has shifted to a horizontally integrated ground architecture for all of its missions. This infrastructure heavily leverages a commercial IT industry that today is a primary engine of innovation in data processing, storage, and encryption, she continued.

“Commercial IT has caught up,” Sapp said. “They can support most of what I need, and today’s mission imperative demands that I do architecture integration and not individual system optimization.”

NRO’s current ground architecture integrates its varied space capabilities to maximize the ability to solve hard intelligence problems. This includes moving at “machine speed” to not just react to events but to anticipate them, she said.

And while NRO still builds large, unique satellites to fulfill certain critical requirements, it is increasingly taking advantage of commercially available hardware, including platforms—or buses—and sensors for some missions, Sapp said.

NRO’s embrace of commercial technology is driven in part by a mission that has changed and expanded significantly since the Cold War. When the primary adversary was the Soviet Union, the sensors deployed by NRO were designed to monitor large, slow-moving objects like strategic missiles, tank divisions, and fixed-site radars. Today, NRO must address a much wider variety of threats while at the same time providing support to warfighters at the tactical level.

“We’re proud of those systems and heritage—we’re not defined by them,” Sapp said, referring to some of NRO’s now-declassified programs of the Cold War era. “A lot has changed since then in targets, in threats, and in the opportunities available to us in the commercial marketplace.”

Throughout its 55-year history, NRO has operated on technology’s cutting edge. To stay there, it has a robust research and development program including the Director’s Innovation Initiative, which reaches out to a broad swath of industry to bring new ideas and technologies into the intelligence-gathering game.

NRO is also trying new and nontraditional acquisition approaches including its Prospector broad agency announcement program, which was introduced on Facebook and Twitter, Sapp said. Prospector proposals were limited to a one-page abstract—typical proposals can be as thick as phone books—and a seven-minute video. Five of the seven award awards went to new NRO partners, Sapp said.

Like its mission partners in the Air Force, NRO faces a growing number of threats to its on-orbit satellites, including kinetic and directed energy, primarily from near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China, Sapp said. The agency is taking steps to make its constellations more resilient, although Sapp said this requirement is not driving NRO’s embrace of small satellites. Small satellites can be targeted just as easily as the big ones, she said.


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