By Ben Iannotta|January 2022
This story has been updated to clarify a question about NASA’s Commercial Crew program.
A “whole of government” approach doesn’t quite capture the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office’s strategy for ensuring it will always be able to decloak, from the vantage point of orbit, the activities of rival nation-states and terrorist organizations. A better label might be “whole of society.” NRO wants workers with creative minds and managers who are willing to shift away from cherished government satellite programs when commercial alternatives are better, and who can scour the scientific and commercial worlds for new spying methods. I spoke to Director Chris Scolese at NRO headquarters in Chantilly, Virginia, at the close of the agency’s 60th anniversary year. Here is our discussion, compressed and edited for readability.
Q: What mark are you looking to leave in your tenure?
A: We’re really preparing and implementing what the future has to look like in the different era we’re entering. A lot of what we did was dominated by the Cold War and it proved to be very useful in dealing with terrorism and violent extremist organizations. But now that space, as we’ve heard by so many people, has become a warfighting domain, it’s certainly congested and it’s much more contested than it was before. The recent Russian ASAT [anti-satellite] test is further evidence of that. And other countries are putting capabilities up there. We have to respond to what those who want to deny our ability to operate in space are doing. We have to build the partnerships to go off and make that happen, nationally and internationally. The biggest partnership is obviously with Space Force and Space Command. Space Force is new. Space Command is not entirely new. It’s been elevated from Air Force Space Command. So, we’ve had a long relationship there. We have to develop tactics and procedures in order to go forward. But, and this is probably the bigger part of it, we have to technologically advance. Any organization that operates in space is operating at the technological edge. But we have to go the next step because adversaries, whether they’re big states like China and Russia, or whether they’re North Korea or Iran, or even violent extremist organizations, are doing things to try and hide.
Q: You mean hide on the ground?
A: Yes. And they’re getting ever more sophisticated. Therefore, we have to get more sophisticated. We have to go to different phenomenologies. We have to go to different orbits. We have to consider different capabilities. We also have to go to technologies that will protect our systems. We rely on Space Force and Space Command to do a lot of that, but just like anything else, you want to have some degree of self-protection. So, we have to build our systems so that they can survive through the fight, whatever that may be: jamming, cyber attacks on the ground and in space. And then to continue the technology, we bring a lot of data to the ground. We have to find more efficient, effective ways to go off and use that data. So, we’re relying, like others are, on artificial intelligence and machine learning to reduce the data, both onboard the spacecraft and on the ground, into more manageable chunks so that the analyst and the warfighter can go off and do the things that really need a human to do.
Q: By data, you mean imagery and signals intelligence?
Q: Could your future satellites have countermeasures aboard, like something that dazzles another spacecraft?
A: I really can’t comment on any of that stuff. A fair thing to say is we have to do things that assure the survivability of our satellites, and that can be warning systems; it’s proliferating the architecture so that it complicates what adversaries are going to do.
Q: So, it’s mainly defensive, not —
A: It’s defensive. Absolutely. And we are looking at different orbits. We’re doing the things that we need to do. For protect and defend, we work closely together with Space Force and Space Command.
Q: My question presupposed that the threat to NRO satellites would be from some actor like China or Russia, but what about a collision between commercial satellites polluting the orbits?
A: Space Command and Commerce [Department] have the responsibility for going off and looking at and tracking space debris, and not just debris, but other satellites. So, we get warned, and then we’ll take appropriate action based on what the probability of a collision is.
Q: Have you had to do anything because of the debris from the Russian satellite?
A: As far as maneuvers, not yet, but we’re watching very closely.
Q: So, how can NRO keep pace with a command economy and society like China’s?
A: We have something they don’t have: our people. We have a very diverse workforce. I think you’re aware that we’re composed of basically three primary
elements: We have a military component, all of the services. It’s mostly Space Force now; used to be mostly Air Force. We have a CIA element. And then, about five or six years ago, we created the Cadre, which is our element that NRO hires. That gives us a diversity of thought in and of itself. When NRO was created, you had the intelligence community focus and you had the DoD focus. Today, we look at diversity even greater than that. With the Cadre we’re representing all of America, where we get to pick the people. We have an extremely talented workforce and a very motivated workforce. We also have great partnerships. Our relationship with Space Force and Space Command is as good as you can get, but that’s true with NGA [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] and NSA and CIA obviously, and all of the intelligence and DoD agencies. But also our international partnerships are there, and then academia and commercial. Most recently we put out an RFP [request for proposals] to go off and extend imagery contracts. We picked that up about two years ago. And now we’re about to expand on that. We’ve expanded the number of players in it because we’re getting more and more capable commercial systems. And then we just put out a BAA [broad agency announcement], and we’re going to be doing those about every year to go off and look at new entrants, particularly in the — different — phenomenologies. I won’t necessarily say new phenomenologies, because the first one is focusing on radar, where there’s been some examples. So, when you put all of that together, we not only have great people, diversity of thought, diversity of background that allows us to think about things, we have strong partnerships and we have a very diverse set of partnerships that improve our resiliency, improve our ability to stay technologically ahead. As we engage with academia, as we engage with industry, as we engage with our commercial partners, and as we talk to our own workforce, we’re seeing new capabilities and new ideas and bringing them forward.
Q: For a student or a young professional engineer, NRO is a place you can come and innovate?
A: Absolutely. One of the things I didn’t mention is our AS&T [Advanced Systems and Technology] organization, where the purpose of that is to come up with new ideas, test out new ideas quickly, see what their relevance is to our mission. And the more relevant they are, they get introduced very quick, which is another aspect of why we can stay technologically ahead. We’re a small, flat organization. Between a project manager and the leadership of the organization is no more than one or two layers, so we can see what’s going on very quickly, we can respond very quickly, and we can provide support very quickly.
Q: For someone in AS&T, could they see an idea actually make it into orbit?
A: Oh, absolutely. And not to see it tested, but to get introduced into an operational system.
Q: What is the relationship between NRO and NGA on the commercial imagery RFP?
A: NGA is more interested in the imagery product. We’re interested in the data stream, the pixels. But we manage that activity with NGA to go off and make sure that we’re getting the products that are needed. So, the way we kind of describe it is NRO is responsible for the pixels, NGA is responsible for the imagery and the analytics.
Q: But who actually makes the commercial agreements?
A: On the pixels coming down and the imagery that’s delivered, that’s us.
Q: What’s the strength of this approach?
A: A couple of things. There’s one place to go to for the commercial folks to come into, at least into the intelligence and DoD side of things. And we work together to coordinate that activity. The second is a little bit along the lines of what you’re talking about. We’re not really the anchor tenant, but we believe we’re an important tenant. And since we’ve been doing this for years, we can also provide help. But we are not by any stretch intending to become the anchor tenant or dominating what they do or telling them what to do.
Editor’s note: The following question has been updated to clarify that NASA’s discomfort was with the landing leg design for Crew Dragon, not the general concept of landing a capsule on land.
Q: Under NASA’s Commercial Crew program, the Crew Dragon capsule originally was going to come down on land, but NASA questioned the landing leg approach, so SpaceX adapted the design to splash down. Is there that kind of give and take on NRO’s commercial side?
A: No, our goal is to let industry go off and innovate and do what they do best, for them to find the market that they want to go off and work in and then for us to take advantage of that. But the idea of these BAAs is to get to see it early when they’re in the process of developing their capabilities and to the extent that they want to work with us on refining those capabilities, we’re more than willing to do that.
Q: The BAAs, I notice, are open to companies that aren’t based in the U.S., but the RFP for the imagery layer is focused on the U.S. What’s different about the BAAs that allows that?
A: We’re looking at things that we haven’t been doing traditionally. So, imagery is a much more mature business model and we want to take advantage of that. The BAA is more cutting edge in some cases like what some are doing with hyperspectral, and it’s different phenomenologies than we’ve done before with the commercial world, radar as an example. There’s still some limitations on who can bid, obviously, but this allows us to explore the full dimension that’s available to us.
Q: What do you make of the trend of commercial companies gathering electronic intelligence, like Hawkeye 360. Is that something NRO could take advantage of?
A: Certainly could, although you need to ask my colleagues across the river at NSA about that. But yeah, I mean, we’re open to all phenomenologies, and certainly we’ll be exploring that.
Q: I just never thought there would be a demand for commercial electronic intelligence.
A: Well, we’ll see, right? We want to let industry go off and pursue what they want to do, whether they develop a market that will allow us to perhaps get out of a market and go focus on the more difficult things or the things that are less marketable but are still absolutely critical to national security.
Q: In your confirmation hearing, you said NRO helps keep the world safe. But now the definition of the world is expanding: Commercial enterprises want to go to the moon, to Mars. So, is NRO going to have to look outward too?
A: I think it’s something that we all have to look at, and clearly, we’re going to work with the administration and Space Force and others to figure out where our role is in cislunar space and beyond.
Q: We just finished our Year in Review issue —
A: I’ve got it at home, or I will.
Q: There’s a great photo in there of Perseverance landing, and it was shot by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Maybe you can leverage civil satellites to some degree?
A: We do. It’s critical to our future. The viability of the commercial markets is really something we’re counting on.
Q: Megaconstellations are expanding. Does that complicate your world at all?
A: No, or I mean it complicates everybody’s world in a way because you have to manage it. But we know how to manage those types of things. And as we develop better machine learning systems, it becomes easier and easier to go off and do that.
Q: Do you mean for space traffic management, like making sure you don’t have collisions and that sort of thing?
Q: I know that astronomers, looking up from Earth, have said, “Whoa, megaconstellations are a problem,” but it’s not a problem for you looking down?
A: Hasn’t been. We have a lot of light coming from the Earth, right? If you’re an astronomer, and you’ve got something coming through your field of view and you’re trying to collect five photons from something that’s 30 light years away, that’s a lot different than looking at the Earth where there’s lots and lots of photons coming out.
Q: Back when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were going full speed, there was a real tasking conundrum. DoD started launching its own electro-optical satellites, and there was operationally responsive space. How has the tasking situation developed since then?
A: Well, I’m sure you know how it works, but just to make it clear for others: We don’t task the satellites. NGA and NSA are the functional managers, and they coordinate with the community to determine what is going to be collected given — no matter how many resources we have up there, it’s limited. Or it’s finite, is maybe the better way to say it. And then they will pass that to us, and we’ll make sure that we meet whatever it is that they have requested.
Q: Would NSA and NGA know what satellites are available?
A: Yes. They know what the capability of the system is, and commercial is now part of that system, as we were talking about. And they build their observational requirement based on what the community wants, and then we deliver on it. And what we try and do is make our system more and more efficient so that we can deliver data faster and more directly to the user, whoever that user is. That’s what we we’re talking about with AI/ML. If we can do more processing onboard the spacecraft, we can deliver a more useful product to the ground that requires less going off searching for X, Y, or Z. You can say, “OK, here’s where X, Y, or Z is,” and then they can go focus on other things.
Q: How is the health of the legacy satellites purchased in the Obama years after the Future Imagery Architecture cancellation?
A: It’s good. I mean, and we’ve grown. Even legacy satellites have been improved from where they were back in 2008, right? And as I said, we’re starting to move more advanced technologies, proliferated layers. Last year we launched 16 satellites. Some of those are brand new capabilities that are pathfinders for where we’re going to be in a couple of years to five years out. They were launched as pathfinders to go off and say, “OK, here’s a new phenomenology, or here’s a new technology, or here’s a new capability that we can go off and deliver.”
Q: So, you could actually say, “This data from an imagery or SIGINT [signals intelligence] from this pathfinder spacecraft is now operational”?
A: I can’t say that today, but it could become that.
Q: Back to the commercial side, what’s the gap it fills?
A: I wouldn’t say that there’s a gap. What I would say is that commercial is advancing just like we’re advancing and they’re providing newer capabilities as they become viable market-wise. We are taking advantage of that, and that is allowing us to focus on these new capabilities that we need to deal with ever more capable denial and deception techniques.
Q: Is there something in your long-range plan that you can erase and say, “We’re now getting that commercially, so we don’t have to own and operate the satellites”?
A: That’s right. There are things like that.
Q: What if the company providing that goes out of business?
A: That’s where we have to be careful, right? You really want to make sure that there’s a market for it, and that we have more than one vendor in there. So, that’s kind of the commercial aspect of it. There has to be a viable market. Our goal is to understand what they’re doing, and, as they become viable, to take advantage of it. We want to let them go off and succeed, and we’re willing to help where we can, but certainly we’re looking at them to figure out where they want to go.
Q: Is there still just this core capability that you have to have?
A: Of course. There are things that the nation needs and we absolutely have to make sure that we’re providing that. Fundamental imagery things that are absolutely needed or SIGINT things that are absolutely needed and we have to rely on. We have to guarantee that that’s there, and we will always be in that business to do that.
Q: Is there anything you’re surprised I didn’t ask you?
A: You were asking, “What are the types of things that we’re looking at that maybe industry isn’t, and how does it fit into the mission?” So, we’re really looking for people that can think out of the box and help us move into the different phenomenologies like quantum sensing, quantum communications, more advanced AI/ML capabilities, to not only do image processing or signal processing, but to also control constellations and make decisions that will allow us to become more efficient in delivering what is requested by the analyst, policymaker or war fighter for what’s ever needed. I think the only other thing I would mention that we didn’t talk about is we participate in the civil side too. That’s more limited, but in the humanitarian aid and what have you, and that’s a critical role that we support as well.