The Evolving GEOINT Mission

A conversation with former astronaut and USGIF Interim CEO Steve Oswald


For the past year, USGIF Board Member Rear Adm. (Ret.) Steve Oswald has served as interim CEO of the foundation. During his career with the Navy and NASA, Oswald served as a tactical pilot, test pilot, space shuttle astronaut, and senior executive. As an astronaut, Oswald flew three space shuttle missions, piloting two missions aboard Discovery in 1992 and 1993, and commanding STS-67 aboard Endeavor in 1995. In 1996, Oswald was assigned to NASA headquarters as deputy associate administrator for space operations.

Before joining Boeing in 2001, Oswald served as deputy commander of the Joint Task Force for Computer Network Operations. At Boeing, Oswald served in a variety of leadership positions, including VP/PM of Boeing’s space shuttle program and, more recently, VP/general manager of the Intelligence and Security Division of Boeing Defense Systems.

What have you learned about the GEOINT Community since being more involved at USGIF?

The GEOINT Community has a rich history. We are a long way from getting a few images from an exquisite asset and using a light table to view them. Now that there are sensors everywhere, the community has many challenges that didn’t exist 30 years ago, and much of that has to do with trying to sort out what’s meaningful in terms of our national security mission. With the proliferation of commercial satellite constellations and UAVs, it’s important to separate the wheat from the chaff—and to determine what’s most useful when considering tools like AI and machine learning. USGIF is doing a great job of helping the community improve the tradecraft as the requirements of technology drive things in a different direction.

What are some other ways Earth observation has changed since your space shuttle missions in the ’90s?

The availability of commercial remote sensing products is the most significant. Having those additional assets on orbit has served the national security community well, and it’s allowed an entirely new business sector to flourish. The small sat revolution is putting affordable satellites in useful orbits to provide images that may not be as high quality, but the fact that they can be overhead more often on targets of interest is hugely beneficial. But this will make the data-crunching demand the community is facing that much more challenging.

Another area that is becoming more important is space traffic management, and someone has to take the lead on it. Small sats likely won’t last as long as legacy systems and could lead to thousands of more pieces of space junk. While more is usually better, it doesn’t come for free and sometimes the potential for collateral damage is overlooked during innovation. Operating in space is difficult enough—hopefully we won’t make it harder.

How do you anticipate Earth observation will continue to evolve in the era of AI and high-performance computing?

With so much GEOINT data out there already, the community doesn’t have much choice but to embrace these technologies. It’s not that different than when machines to help build cars were first introduced. Before those machines, folks were comfortable in the job they had attaching fenders to Fords. The GEOINT Community has a similar hurdle with those who have gotten comfortable doing what they’ve always done. But this is an evolution dozens of industries have undergone. The community must evolve; the challenge for leadership is to encourage people to embrace new technology and to pursue training opportunities.

What interests you the most about today’s U.S. space programs?

Human space flight. Back in the Apollo days, the urgency wasn’t really to get to the moon, it was to beat the Soviets in whatever they were pursuing. When President Kennedy laid out this challenge, NASA had a huge budget. And, because being first on the moon was deemed to be so critical, we weren’t nearly as risk averse as we are today.

Human space flight was a government-run business up until the last six to eight years. Now, the government is trying to figure out how to buy services from private industry. SpaceX, which is delivering cargo to the International Space Station and hoping to soon transport humans, is a good example.

NASA is still spending taxpayer dollars to get “stuff” and people to space but doing so in a different way. Instead of buying the hardware from a contractor and putting it on a government launchpad, they’re now paying a contractor with its own launch vehicle and the government launch pads are often controlled by contractors. This transition is similar to how GeoEye and DigitalGlobe transformed the business of remote sensing.

We haven’t figured out how a similar model is going to work with regard to flying humans to space, but people are trying. It’s still a stretch to see how we are going to get to a private space station that amounts to a “Marriott on orbit,” but I hope it happens—as long as it’s done in a way that doesn’t make the space traffic management and orbital debris situations worse.   

Posted in: Perspective   Tagged in: 2019 Issue 4, Remote Sensing

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