Five years ago, the idea that Internet users could pull up a satellite image of just about any location on the planet at a whim would have seemed ludicrous. Yet that's precisely what websites like Google Maps and Microsoft's Live Search offer today--for free! Desktop applications like Microsoft's Virtual Earth and Google Earth offer even more advanced geospatial tools--again, for free. But of course this library of incredibly rich imagery didn't just "fall out of the sky," as they say. It was collected by a handful of expensive commercial remote sensing satellites whose construction was made possible by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's (Wikipedia) extraordinarily successful "Nextview" program implemented under the Commercial Remote Sensing Policy of 2003. Rather than having the Federal government build its own satellites--and pay for the entire cost of the satatellites--the NGA very wisely chose to buy imagery from commercial providers in two ~$500 million, 4-year contracts with U.S. satellite imagery companies: DigitalGlobe in 2003 and OrbImage (now GeoEye) in 2004.
These long-term purchase agreements essentially made the U.S. Government the "anchor tenant" in a new class of remote sensing satellites, providing the initial funding for both companies to build and operate their satellites. But because the companies sell roughly half of imagery to foreign governments and commercial buyers like Google and Microsoft, these deals have saved U.S taxpayers money for the purchase of imagery for a wide variety of needs, ranging from agricultural monitoring to military intelligence. At the same time, the Nextview contracts have given birth to a vibrant geospatial industry whose immediate benefits should be obvious to anyone who's ever pulled up a satellite map online and whose macroeconomic impact is potentially enormous. So why mess with success? If the U.S. Government thinks it needs more satellite imagery, why not simply award another long-term purchase agreement to a commercial provider? Besides reducing the burden on the taxpayers, continuing the NextView approach would support the construction of a new generation of commercial satellites like GeoEye-1, which was launched just last month, and DigitalGlobe's WorldView-1, launched last year. Rather than rolling back NextView in favor of building its own systems, the U.S. Government should be looking for other space services it can buy on a commercial basis as a way of building industries rather than programs, ranging from sending crew & cargo to the International Space Station to communications and navigation services for NASA's planned Return to the Moon.
Rather than giving up on the NextView approach in the area where it has already produced spectacular results, the U.S. government should be looking for other areas in which to apply the NextView model by buying space services from commercial providers.
Full disclosure: I was proud to handle FCC matters for GeoEye while practicing law at Latham & Watkins LLP. I currently have no greater personal interest in their success than should any American who wants to see the private sector succeed where the government has failed in opening up the space frontier to all mankind.