LANDSAT and the Rise of Earth
by Pamela E. Mack
In 1974, Dr. John E. Clark, representing NASA, and Daniel J. Fink, representing General Electric, received a Collier Trophy for the Landsat program, for "proving in 1974 the value of U.S. space technology in the management of the Earth's resources and environment for the benefit of all mankind."1 The Landsat program had proved its value in the eyes of the selection committee in the two years since the launch of the first satellite in 1972, but proving its value to potential users and to the Office of Management and Budget and to Congress turned out to be substantially more difficult. Somewhat improved Landsat satellites are still flying in the mid 1990s, back under government management after a failed effort at commercialization. But the project cannot be deemed a success; the United States maintains neither leadership in technology for civilian earth observation nor a robust operational program. Clearly the Collier Trophy award represented technical success and the hopes of the aerospace community for a new, more relevant mission to justify the space program. The larger story, however, lies in why a project which embodied such hopes came to so little.
Landsat was not a large project by the standards of the program to put human beings in space, but it involved broader concerns for NASA and a large-project management style. Landsat gained public attention, and a Collier Trophy, because it symbolized a wish that the space program would bring more obvious benefits on earth. NASA leaders sought to respond to such concerns from Congress and the general public by playing up the idea that Earth resources satellites could serve the public good, while at the same time promising quick commercialization.2 But this commitment lacked stamina; NASA leaders still saw space exploration as the core mission of the agency, and the agency tended to further define that mission as research and development only, not operational data collection or promoting use of the resulting data. Landsat became a project intended to provide political or bureaucratic capital to NASA and its supporters, and those motivations further complicated the problem of balancing the needs of researchers and of potential operational users.
The project found itself repeatedly strangled in the budget process and by conflicts with the user agencies, even after it had (in the eyes of participants) "succeeded magnificently from a scientific and engineering sense."3 Most of the scientists and engineers involved at the working level committed themselves wholeheartedly to developing the possibilities for a civilian earth-observation satellite to serve the public good. But funding for the project and approval of subsequent steps was repeatedly caught up in conflicts both between NASA, the Office of Management and Budget, and Congress over funding and between NASA and the agencies that would use the data over the future of the project.
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Disagreements among users made it difficult to design the satellite
and resulted in only weak support from users when funding decisions were
made.4 These factors, plus a lack of
strong leadership in the project after its earliest years, left it caught
in limbo without sufficient funding to realize the potential it had demonstrated.
|The 1974 Collier Trophy went to Dr. John F Clark, NASA, and to Daniel J. Fink, General Electric Company, representing the NASA/Industry Team responsible for the Earth Resources Technology Satellite Program (later renamed Landsat). Landsat is shown in flight configuration with solar panels deployed after tests at the G.E. Valley Forge Plant. A Data Collection System, on board, gathered information from Earth based platforms then relayed data to a ground processing facility. (NASA photo no. 72-H-873).|
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Building a Base of Support
In the early years of Landsat, advocates for Earth resources satellites built a complex web of political and bureaucratic support in order to make the project happen. Landsat developed in a period when NASA managers tried out the possibility of justifying the space program on the basis of its practical benefits, instead of simply appealing to the space race as a justification for popular and political support. Weather and communications satellites were already established on a firm footing by the mid-1960s; Landsat formed part of a new wave of interest in applications in the late 1960s, as space enthusiasts tried to limit post-Apollo cutbacks.5 The trouble with practical applications, however, was that the benefits they brought inevitably fell within the responsibilities of some other agency or organization, and those agencies had their own interests (and usually much lower levels of research and development funding than NASA).
The use of satellites to observe the Earth for classified reconnaissance played a major role in the development of the U.S. space program, but civilian Earth observation satellites got off to a much slower start.6 Geologists and geographers working in the classified reconnaissance satellite program saw that satellite data had potential value to civilian users, but the managers of the classified program attached great importance to keeping secret not only technological designs but also the capability of satellites. Therefore they not only prohibited civilian use of classified technology but also discouraged the development of a civilian Earth observation satellite program using unclassified technology.7 However, pressure for a civilian program grew in the mid-1960s as scientists saw pictures of the Earth taken by astronauts with hand-held cameras and as studies of other planets provided examples of the potential of remote sensing.8 In 1965, NASA started exploratory research on remote sensing of Earth resources with contracts to the U.S. Geological Survey (a branch of the Department of the Interior) and the Army Corps of Engineers for research using sensors flown in NASA aircraft.9
The Department of the Interior, and to a lesser extent the Corps of Engineers and the Department of Agriculture, quickly concluded that civilian Earth resources satellites had the potential to help them perform their assigned missions. However, each agency had different requirements and concerns about the future management of a satellite program, and NASA faced other needs and pressures as well. The Geological Survey wanted fairly fine resolution images that could easily be compared with maps and aerial photographs for studies of geology and natural resources (the Corps of Engineers had similar needs). The Department of Agriculture needed spectral accuracy; that is, agricultural scientists needed detailed information about the color of vegetation in order to differentiate crops
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and detect disease.10 NASA initially studied possibilities for an elaborate satellite carrying a number of sensors to meet a variety of requirements. However, the Department of Interior in particular wanted a relatively simple operational satellite quickly rather than an elaborate experimental program.11
In 1966, the Department of the Interior pulled off a public relations stunt in an effort to accelerate NASA's plans. The leaders of the U.S. Geological Survey persuaded Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall to announce in September 1966 that the Department of the Interior was initiating its own operational satellite program. They proposed a simple satellite carrying just one kind of sensor to be launched in 1969.12 The Department of the Interior did not have the necessary expertise (or a partner-agency with the necessary expertise) to start its own satellite program.13 But even though the announcement did not reflect a realistic plan, it worked as a strategy. In the resulting controversy, NASA retained responsibility for experimental Earth resources satellites, but the space agency's leaders found themselves under pressure from the press and Congress to develop a satellite quickly.14 NASA initiated a project initially called Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS), then changed the name to Landsat in 1975.
Even with this pressure for a quicker and less ambitious experimental program, NASA planners and engineers sought to design a satellite more elaborate than the simple experiment proposed by the Department of the Interior. This decision reflected both the assumption of NASA program managers that their goal was to collect data of the maximum possible scientific sophistication and their interest in balancing the influence of the Department of the Interior by seeking to identify and satisfy the requirements of other users besides Interior. NASA had funded development of a multispectral scanner that could provide data more useful to agricultural scientists than the television-type camera (return beam vidicon) the Department of the Interior wanted. However, scanners had not yet been tested in space, and some engineers doubted that the sensor was ready for flight. The decision to include the scanner on Landsat resulted both from pressure from researchers at the Department of Agriculture and from the interest of NASA leaders in involving that department more fully in the project. NASA saw that support from the Department of Agriculture could provide a larger constituency for Landsat and could balance Interior's pressure for a quick transition to an operational program controlled by Interior rather than NASA.15
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This plan sounded good in theory, but lack of clarity about user needs.
Meanwhile tensions between NASA and the user agencies made it almost impossible
to build a base of support for the project. Different parts of the user
community had different needs, and it was often not clear how satellite
data could best serve agency missions. Users tended at first to expect
the new technology to directly replace various older technologies. The
agencies' own perceptions of their needs changed as they saw what the technology
could do for them and as NASA sought to persuade them that data from a
compromise satellite would have value to them even if it did not easily
fit existing systems. Specific problems with requirements included a Department
of the Interior expectation of map-like accuracy that required special
correction of the data from either sensor. The Department of Agriculture,
on the other hand, tended to expect the satellite data to directly replace
aerial photographs, and therefore wanted fine resolution and frequent coverage
of large areas, as well as spectral accuracy. In the fall of 1970, NASA
project scientist William Nordberg described data specifications from the
Department of Agriculture as "grossly overstated" and those from the Department
of the Interior as "a bomb shell."16
Limited by restrictions on resolution intended to prevent conclusions from
being drawn about the capability of classified satellites, NASA had to
persuade the users that data that did not meet these unrealistic requirements
could still be useful.
if funding had been plentiful project engineers could have designed a system
more optimized for different users rather than trying to force compromises
before users had time to learn from experience with satellite data. But
in a tight funding situation, such disagreements simply became a justification
for further cutbacks, and the project did not have an adequate chance to
The Bureau of the Budget (later the Office of Management and Budget) opposed the project both because it did not appear that NASA and the users had their act together and for reasons entirely external to Landsat. The Budget Bureau refused approval for Landsat in late 1967, only to be overturned on appeal, and then in 1968 proposed cancellation of the project (and its replacement with an aircraft program). This early lack of support probably reflected most strongly opposition to Landsat from those involved in the classified reconnaissance satellite program. It also involved a general tendency for budget-makers to cut other parts of the NASA budget at a time when Apollo costs were high and policy-makers had moved on to other priorities, including the escalating cost of the war in Vietnam. In 1969, the Bureau of the Budget cut the Landsat budget from $41.5 to $10 million dollars, and eliminated funding for the Data Center proposed by the Department of the Interior, though NASA funding and minimal funds for the Data Center were restored on appeal.18 By this point, cost-benefit analysis and lack of uniform enthusiasm from the users had become a key issue. The Bureau of the Budget required a whole series of cost-benefit studies, in which NASA had to justify Landsat not on the grounds of new benefits that would result but on the grounds of how the satellite project would save the government money by replacing old ways of doing things.19
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Though NASA had to maintain the appearance of a united front within the Executive Branch, the agency sought to counter Bureau of the Budget opposition by trying to get stronger support from the user agencies and by playing to congressional interest in practical applications of the space program. Joseph E. Karth, chair of the House Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications, gave particularly strong support; he wanted to see the project move ahead and complained about the repeated cost-benefit studies that the Budget Bureau required for Landsat. He summed up his criticism of Executive Branch opposition to Landsat in 1969: "In looking at the history of ERS [Earth Resources Surveys], I come to the inescapable conclusion that there is a preponderance of evidence of footdragging, setting up of strawmen, and the assignment of unique and unusual and, I might say, ridiculous yardsticks, and so on and so forth." 20 In 1969, Congress actually restored funding to the Federal budget for the Landsat data processing system that had been requested by the Department of the Interior, but opposed by the Bureau of the Budget, and therefore not included in the budget that the President sent to Congress. However, the Bureau of the Budget refused to release the appropriated funds.21
While NASA did win enough funding to build and launch Landsat, the unending battles weakened the project. Even in 1971, just a year before the launch of the first satellite, the Budget Bureau proposed cancellation of the backup satellite.22 Lack of funding and political support dramatically reduced NASA leaden' ability to respond to user needs, particularly as project managers sought increasingly to serve both experimental and operational needs. In addition, under pressure from the Bureau of the Budget, NASA had agreed to a conceptualization very different from weather satellites: "the program was permanently molded as a government R&D program that, once feasibility was demonstrated, would give way to a new commercial venture."23
Landsat showed both the strengths and the weakness of NASA'S process for managing technological innovation. The project lacked strong leadership, but by the late 1960s NASA had a fairly standard pattern for research and development of satellite technology, and the Landsat satellite system fit into that pattern with few surprises. Management problems arose mostly in cooperation with the user agencies, an area in which NASA managers had less experience. The Landsat system involved a new combination of existing technologies; not significant technological innovation, though there were challenges in the data processing system and in development of applications. With more attempt to advance the state of the art, Landsat might have represented the kind of incremental development that had been successful at the NACA. However, an incremental approach did not work as well without a commitment to a long-term program and funding for continued improvements.
Landsat did not have consistent leadership or a strong institutional base even inside NASA. The first head of the Earth Resources Program Office, Peter Badgley, had been an early advocate for an Earth resources satellite, but he left NASA in 1968 and his successor left in early 1970. 24 In 1967, NASA leaders assigned Landsat development to the Goddard Space Flight Center, a Center with more expertise in space science than space applications. The team for the project came in significant part from a group that was finishing up
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work on the Orbiting Geophysical Observatory satellite project. A reorganization of NASA management in 1972 introduced another level of complexity by establishing an Earth Resources Survey Program Office at the Johnson Space Center (abolished in 1977). NASA Headquarters assigned some of its coordination and evaluation duties to this office, which also strengthened the role of the Johnson Space Center in applications development and technology transfer for Landsat.25
A series of interagency committees provided coordination between NASA and the user agencies, with some success on the working level but limited support from higher levels. In 1968, an Earth Resources Survey Program Review Committee was formed to make policy for Landsat but it met only every few months and tended to provide mostly approval of decisions already made by NASA.26 This committee did play a major role in the battle over Landsat specifications discussed above, but not in as much detail as the users would have liked. A cartographer at the Department of the Interior complained: "Specifications which vitally effect [sic] the users are being made without the users being properly informed. It is believed that this situation, if allowed to continue, will result in a satellite being flown the data from which cannot properly be utilized by the users."27 That prediction was too dire, but certainly the users did not get everything they thought they needed. In 1972, the Program Review Committee was replaced with an Interagency Coordinating Committee: Earth Resources Survey Program, but NASA kept control of the new committee.
Landsat managers and engineers found that their task was not to develop new technology for Landsat, but only to decide between alternative approaches for the use of existing technology. When the Goddard group initiated a concept study for Landsat in 1967, they received unsolicited proposals from a number of aerospace companies for Earth resources satellites using technology that those companies had already developed (both for classified programs and for planetary probes). The Goddard group decided on a relatively small satellite using existing satellite technology; only the sensors required significant development and even they represented modifications of existing designs.28 NASA selected General Electric as the satellite's contractor, with a plan to use the satellite bus (structure and common systems, such as power supply) already developed for the Nimbus experimental weather satellite. The program followed a standard NASA management system, called Phased Project Planning, and suffered only minor snags in coordinating contractors.
The data processing system provided more of a challenge, but again the research and development took place almost entirely in industry. The Bureau of the Budget wanted to keep the Landsat experiment as small as possible, and particularly did not want to see a de facto operational satellite created under the cover of an experiment. Therefore, the Budget Bureau repeatedly cut funding for the data distribution system to be provided by the Department of the Interior, and restricted the data processing system developed by NASA to the minimum size necessary to meet the requirements of a small number of scientific investigations.29 Landsat data processing represented a new combination of challenges for NASA. The planetary program had provided agency engineers with experience with high resolution image data, which involved very large amounts of data for each image, but with Landsat that large data rate would be sustained for years (instead of for a
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few weeks at a time, as had been the case with planetary probes) and the data was much more useful if it was available quickly. In addition, project managers had to make decisions about the data processing system at a time when a new approach, digital image processing, was clearly the wave of the future but had not yet been proven for large-scale use. Given tight budgets and requirements that Landsat be designed only as a short-term experiment, Landsat managers decided to stick to the older technology (analog processing). The resulting data processing system was outdated before it was built and inadequate to meet user expectations. Planning for a major upgrade to a digital system began as early as a year after the launch of the first satellite in 1972, though lack of funding delayed the installation of an improved system until 1980. 30 In this case project leaders clearly chose (or were forced to chose) to use well-established technology rather than undertake research and development to meet a new challenge.
NASA took some role in the development of applications for Landsat data, but in most cases it simply provided funding to scientists and user agencies. NASA's largest in-house project was an effort to develop agricultural uses for Landsat data, conducted at the Johnson Space Center in partnership with the Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 1974 to 1978. NASA engineers (some of whom had previously worked on Apollo) took a large-scale, brute force approach, setting up a computer system to measure the area planted in various crops and monitor and predict from weather data how well they were growing. The Department of Agriculture did not put the resulting system into use, in fact the Foreign Agricultural Service instead developed its own system using a different approach. Instead of calculating areas planted each year, the Foreign Agricultural Service system compared Landsat images from year to year, and analyzed only at the area where it detected differences.31 Overall, NASA had some successes in developing applications for Landsat data, but potential users were often reluctant to consider applications developed by NASA because they assumed that any technology developed by the space agency would be too expensive and too sophisticated for everyday, practical use by resource managers. 32
For a project like Landsat, NASA did almost none of the kind of original research and development that had characterized the NACA. The job of the space agency had become funding and managing research and development by industry, and in the case of a project with tight funding and important public relations implications like Landsat the space agency preferred to minimize technological risk. Landsat did not represent research that could only be done by the Federal government, and it only marginally fit the definition of a project too risky or too long-term for private investment. Landsat was a government enterprise because NASA leaders thought it would benefit the space program to show more practical results, and political issues such as the proper use of data collected over other countries made the government nervous of allowing private enterprise to get into the business in the early years.33 An alternate model-that the government might provide Earth resources satellite data as a public good like weather satellite data-never gained official acceptance.
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|Scientists view a Landsat enlargement on a special machine in the control center. Federal agencies participating in the Landsat project included the Department of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior Defense, and the Environmental Protection Agency. (NASA photo no. 72-H-1065)|
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Success and Failure
Landsat data proved its value to many users after the launch of the first satellite on July 23, 1972. However, success did not end the political travails of the project. In particular two problems resulted in continuing uncertainties about the future of the project. First, actual operational use of the data did not live up to the predictions that had been made by project supporters when they had campaigned for support of the project in the years before launch. Second, further development of satellites for civilian Earth observation became stalled in a fight over how an operational program should be conducted. In both cases difficulties arose from conflicting interests between NASA and the users. These were complicated by tensions about the proper relationship between research and practical applications and the proper role of the government as a technology moved along that spectrum.
In technical terms the project proved almost completely successful. The satellite functioned as planned and delivered the promised data, which provided information of value to scientists studying agriculture, geology, land use, and in many other fields. The sensor that had seemed more of a risk during development, the Multispectral Scanner, proved particularly valuable because the data from different spectral bands (in effect different colors) could be compared accurately. Satellite data proved most dramatically beneficial to developing countries; in many cases Landsat images provided the first adequate maps of remote regions.34 Scientists found much useful information, however, even for well mapped areas. Landsat data could indeed provide information on everything from urban growth to ice cover in shipping lanes to the health of vegetation. The awarding of the Collier Trophy in 1974, two years after launch, reflected at least in part a large number of successful scientific experiments demonstrating that useful information of many different types could be extracted from Landsat data.35 Given the continuing lack of political support for Landsat its continuing success was hardly assured in 1974, but the project had met its initial goals.
In 1974, supporters of Landsat would probably have recognized that the project was not ready for commercialization and hoped for a relatively quick transition to a government-controlled operational remote sensing system on the model of the weather satellite system, housed either in NASA or in the Department of the Interior. They would have expected an operational system to involve improvements in the satellites and the data processing system (particularly to deliver data more quickly after the satellite collected it), more user involvement, and, most important, a commitment to data continuity (that is, to launching another satellite before or quickly after the operating satellite failed). Initially, opponents of that vision argued that the satellite, while successful in the narrow sense, had not proved useful enough to establish the need for an operational system.
Indeed, operational use of Landsat data grew much more slowly than its proponents had predicted.36 Partly this resulted from overly optimistic predictions. A 1985 study summed up Landsat's problem: "Large but unverifiable estimates of benefits from space remote sensing were used to 'sell' the program, within NASA and within the administration.
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|This photograph was taken from an altitude of 914 kilometers (568 statute miles) of the Santa Barbara, California, area about 11 a. m. on October 4, 1972. Some of the notable landmarks photographed include: Sierra Madre Mountains (center); Santa Barbara, California (lower center); Vandenberg AFB (left center); Santa Rosa Island (bottom left center); Santa Cruz Island (bottom right center); Ventura, California (lower right center); Bakersfield, California (upper light). (NASA photo no. 73-H-114).|
Unfortunately, some of the early flamboyant and unrealizable projections of benefits later came back to haunt the program."37 In addition, selling a new system for domestic operational needs proved difficult because of user resistance to changing existing systems. Potential users often found only marginal benefits from replacing existing data sources with data from Landsat, and the old ways of doing things often had strong reinforcement from constituencies. 38 More benefits came from using the new data in new ways, and NASA provided some funding and a lot of free data to researchers who studied more innovative
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|A four sequence image of the Rocky Mountains Wind Range in Wyoming, taken by Landsat, where the amount of snow cover changes from winter to summer. By the precise change of acreage in this snow cover hydrologists have computed the water run-off from the mountains for the whole watershed and assessed the amount of water available for irrigation and human consumption. (NASA photo no. 74-H-504).|
applications that made better use of the real advantages of Landsat data. Two NASA scientists summed up their view of the results in 1985: "The examples and the capability discussed here clearly illustrate the overall success of the program. Landsat data have resulted in totally new methodologies for resource inventory and environmental assessment for a worldwide community of users and as such have served an important role in bringing resource managers into the computer age."39 However, the Bureau of the Budget had insisted that Landsat prove itself by replacing existing systems, and NASA leaders did not fully understand the difficulty of persuading users to adopt new techniques that supplanted, or greatly modified, existing systems.40
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|This is one of the first photos taken by Landsat. Taken from an altitude, of about 900 kilometers (560 statute miles), this photo shows several features in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, area. The cities of Dallas and Fort Worth are at the bottom of the photo. (NASA photo no. 72-H- 1044).|
The continuing definition of the project as experimental also provided a major barrier to effective operational use. The Bureau of the Budget defined the project as strictly experimental: the Bureau "placed stringent limits on the throughout capability of the ground data processing system" and refused to fund a system that could process data quickly—"as a result, any exploratory use of Landsat data that required rapid access to processed data was precluded at the outset."41 The Landsat data processing system could not meet all of the demands of operational use, and in any case potential users hesitated to invest in expensive new systems to use Landsat data while the project was still experimental and data continuity not guaranteed. In turn, the Office of Management and Budget would not approve the transformation of Landsat into an operational system until widespread use proved its value.42 Without any separation between an experimental and an operational program, operational needs squeezed out innovation.43 As delays in an
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operational decision mounted, Landsat became increasingly out of date; in 1986, France launched an Earth resources satellite named SPOT (Systeme Probatoire d'Observation de la Terre) carrying more technologically-advanced sensors providing finer resolution.
The creation of an operational Earth resources satellite program in
the United States became snagged not only in questions about effective
use of the system but also in political interests, in particular a new
emphasis on privatization. President Jimmy Carter made a priority of reducing
the size of the Federal government, and his staff identified Earth resources
satellites as one of the best candidates for transfer of a government function
to private industry. Landsat appeared to be a perfect case because commercial
success had been one of the promises of the early cost-benefit studies:
"the original approval for Landsat was predicated on private markets growing
to the point of having the capability to fully fund all system cost."44
In October 1978, President Carter officially requested that NASA and the
Department of Commerce investigate ways to encourage private industry participation
in civilian remote sensing (including Landsat, weather satellites, and
ocean observation satellites).45 However,
the disappointing demand for data gave private industry doubts about the
profitability of Landsat. It quickly became clear that privatizing the
project would not be an easy task.46
|A giant photo map of the contiguous forty-eight states (1974) of the United States, the first ever assembled from satellite images, completed for NASA by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Soil Conservation Service Cartographic Division. (NASA photo),|
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Meanwhile, Landsat was stuck in place until the President made a decision on an operational system. NASA launched additional satellites that tested relatively minor improvements in technology and provided the data users needed, but the space agency had authorization neither for an ambitious research program to develop new generations of sensors nor for an operational program that would meet the needs of users for an assured supply of data. In addition, the wide range of users complicated the decision on an operational system: other user agencies did not want the Department of the Interior to take responsibility for an operational system because they feared that Interior would not serve their interests.47 Faced with these constraints, Carter chose a short-term solution in November 1979. He gave the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) temporary responsibility for managing an operational Landsat system and asked it and its parent agency, the Department of Commerce, to study ways to encourage industry participation with the long-term goal of eventual operation by the private sector.48
President Reagan attached an even higher value to privatization than Carter, and in March 1983 he announced a decision to transfer Landsat, weather satellites, and future ocean observation satellites to private industry.49 Congress strongly rejected the idea of privatizing weather satellites, but the Department of Commerce proceeded with a request for proposals from private industry to take over Landsat.50 Congress passed a bill setting the terms for transfer, and the Earth Observation Satellite Company (a joint venture of Hughes and RCA) won the competition and took over the program. 51 The new company started out in a weak position; the Federal government provided only a small subsidy for the transition period and no guaranteed Federal data purchases, yet Congress continued oversight by holding hearings (in some cases leading to amendments to the original law) about the future of Landsat and the concerns of government agencies that used Landsat data.52 By 1985, one Landsat supporter had concluded that "There seems to be little doubt that the present market cannot sustain the operating costs of a land observing system, to say nothing of the capital costs."53
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The attempt at privatization failed in 1992. Because the corporate owner had never had significant new resources to invest in the system, little had been accomplished during the privatization period. The Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 ended "the 'experiment' which had so negatively affected the research use of remote sensing data acquired from the Landsat satellites."54 The new law repealed the commercialization act of 1984 and transferred responsibility for Landsat from the Department of Commerce to NASA and the Department of Defense, which had found the broad coverage of Landsat data useful during Desert Storm.55 After disagreements over funding the Department of Defense withdrew in 1994, and NASA resumed sole responsibility for Landsat, with plans to launch one more satellite.56 Failure of Landsat 6 in October 1993, frequent changes in NASA's overall remote sensing plans, and increasing competition from other countries and possibly from private industry, left the future of the program uncertain .57
While Landsat commercialization had failed, interest in commercial remote sensing continued to grow.58 Private industry could almost certainly sustain an Earth resources satellite that provided data similar to Landsat (though probably lacking some of the features scientists want) if the government would guarantee a significant purchase of data each year, or if the owner could offer commercial users exclusive use of certain data for a higher price. However, such a satellite would most likely not provide data of as much scientific value as that provided by Landsat. A private company would probably only collect data as ordered, rather than providing comprehensive coverage to build up a historical archive of data for later comparison, and would probably not invest as much in the precision of the sensors, since such precision is needed for only a few uses, mostly scientific.
The proper roles of the government and private industry became less and less clear as technology advanced. Landsat became less dauntingly "big technology," new innovations in the 1990s made it possible to design a much smaller and less expensive satellite with similar capabilities. Such a satellite was no longer too expensive for private companies to undertake without Federal subsidy.
Landsat was a relatively small project by NASA standards, but because of its practical goals it shows particularly clearly the problems of building a constituency for big science and technology projects and the complexities involved in determining the proper role of the government in the spectrum between research and practical applications. While the NACA had successfully served industry needs by providing background research rather than building whole new systems, NASA leaders found big projects with practical benefits much more problematic than projects oriented towards scientific research or exploration. NASA could justify a certain amount of basic science as worth doing for its own sake, but once a project was justified on the basis of its practical benefits then why was the government doing it rather than leaving it to private industry who presumably could make a profit by selling such beneficial data? At least for NASA, the public good has become increasingly difficult to define and use as a justification. One long-time participant in the program wrote in frustration: "One of the great conundrums of the Federal programs of the space age is that the more likely something is to be useful the more difficult it will be to sustain it."59