American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

House Hearing on The Commercial Space Act of 1997: Commercial Remote Sensing, Part II

House Committee on Science
Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics
June 4, 1997

Dr. D. James Baker, Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, US Department of Commerce
Ms. Cheryl Roby, Principal Deputy to the Assistant Secretary for Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence, Department of Defense
Mr. Mike Sweik, Executive Director, GPS Industry Council
Representative from the State Department (Invited), did not attend

Representatives present
Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Ranking Member Bud Cramer (D-AL)
Rep. Bill Luther (D-MN)
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX)

To read the full testimony of the witnesses submitted to the committee, visit the House Science Committee website.

Chairman Rohrabacher began by stating that the purpose of the hearing was to hear "from government agencies which play a role in overseeing and regulating the commercial remote sensing industry." To that end, the invited witnesses included representatives from the Commerce Department, which licenses remote sensing companies; the Defense Department, which reviews license applications with particular attention to national security concerns; and the State Department, which reviews applications based on our international obligations. Rohrabacher took the lack of a State Department representative and the lack of even a written statement to mean that they have no objections. This absence of representation was of particular concern, however, in light of circumstances concerning H.R. 3936. As Rohrabacher noted, "after we had passed the bill through the House under suspension; and after we had begun negotiating with the Senate; our staff was told by a Senate office that some lawyer in the State Department had a problem with the commercial remote sensing portion of the bill." Rohrabacher made it clear that he wished to avoid a repeat occurrence of such a conflict, labeling the State Department objection as a "classic Washington bureaucratic maneuver."

Overall, there was a unanimous opinion that remote sensing is a technology that has both scientific as well as economic benefits. Rep. Cramer referred to remote sensing as a "major new source of jobs and economic growth for America." Mr. Mike Sweik, Executive Director of the Global Positioning System (GPS) Industry Council, extended the potential uses of GPS technology and the values of pursuing that technology for everyday applications. He visualized a future where different technological innovations will come together to revolutionize the way that Americans live. According to Mr. Sweik, we may not be far from a time when our automobiles will tell us that our oil needs to be changed and the nearest service station is only a mile up the road...and they just happen to have an appointment available.

The hearing was the second held to address the Commercial Space Act of 1997. The first hearing, which specifically addressed issues of space transportation, was held on May 22, 1997. To read the full testimony of the witnesses submitted to the committee for part one of the hearings, visit the House Science Committee website.

Dr. Baker began the testimony by stating that the licensing of private remote-sensing space systems is important to the national security of the United States as well as the economic growth of the nation. He spoke of the need to "nurture the development of this industry" so as not to "squander the US lead in this area." The global commercial imagery market amounts to nearly $400 million worldwide and is expected to grow to approximately $2 billion by the year 2000. The Department of Commerce has had licensing authority since the passage of the Land Remote Sensing Commercialization Act of 1984, and retains that authority under the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992. Since 1992, eleven licenses have been issued to operate private remote sensing devices, and the commercial operation of one of these is expected to start by the end of this year.

Baker referred to the March 1994 Presidential Policy titled US Policy on Foreign Access to Remote Sensing Space Capabilities, stating that this policy sought to introduce a "measure of certainty into the licensing process by establishing a set of conditions to be included in each operating license." The two conditions, meant to address national security and foreign policy concerns, include: 1) the Government may limit collection or distribution of data "during periods when national security or international obligations and/or foreign policies may be compromised," and 2) the operator must submit "significant or substantial" foreign agreements in advance for review by the appropriate US agencies. Baker stressed the need for clarity in the terms set forth for licensing agreements, both to ensure that the security goals be met and to assure potential investors.

Baker concluded his testimony with the remark, "It is in the best interest of the United States that we license the operations of such systems...this will give the United States the needed control over these systems to protect our national security and economic interests, promote widespread access to data from them, maintain the US dominance in this technology, and establish our leadership in the global commercial imagery market."

Ms. Roby's testimony focused on the national security implications of remote sensing commercialization, while also recognizing the future benefits to defense promised by the process. Roby stressed the need for the protection of "real-time" information such as troop movements and Naval vessel location through "shutter control." This term refers to a process whereby international agreements will permit the shutdown of sensing systems, or prohibit the release of data during times when national security is threatened. As an example, Roby spoke of the Department of Defense request during the Gulf War that the French shut down the SPOT system...a request with which the French complied.

Mr. Sweik referred to GPS as a great success story and a model example of military, government, and industry cooperation. Private sector investment has allowed for military innovations and vice versa. He credited the US Government with contributing to that success through a "stable policy framework" and largely bipartisan efforts. Sweik spoke of the tremendous benefits of GPS technology to national productivity, identifying its role in agriculture, construction, land use and transport, mining, telecommunications, "and millions of others." GPS enhances productivity in all of the industries, "at times as much as 100% to 300%." He concluded with the hope that policy decisions will signal conclusive support for GPS in the marketplace. Sweik also characterized the language in the Commercial Space Act of 1997 as adequate to sustaining the needed stable policy framework for continued growth.

Questions and Answers

Rohrabacher questioned the premise of "open skies" and how limited information access might fit into this principle. Roby responded that the premise of "open skies" does in fact apply to remote sensing activities. There is no "sovereignty over space." However, the leverage for the purposes of national security comes in controlling the data dispersed in times of emergency. Dr. Baker referred to Israel as a "special case," since NOAA has informed licensees that they cannot collect images of Israel due to internal conflict unless they are of a resolution comparable to those collected by non-US sources. Rep. Cramer questioned the conditions that would have to be present for denial of a license. Both Baker and Roby commented that no applications have been turned down as of yet, though grounds for a refusal might be found in a firm's foreign involvement. To Cramer's inquiry about the most important emerging application of GPS, Mr. Sweik compared the difficulty of the question to "being asked to state every word you know." He went on to say that the overall value of GPS technology is in the information provided, allowing us to do things more easily and cheaply. Rep. Jackson Lee questioned Ms. Roby about the international agreements needed for adequate "shutter control." Roby responded that no agreements are as yet in place, although there has been a continuous dialogue. She also expanded upon the earlier Gulf War example, stating that the French complied with the Defense Department request, even in the absence of a formal agreement.

Rep. Rohrabacher concluded the hearing with an invitation for "philosophical comments for the record" from the present committee members. Rohrabacher himself stressed the need for a focus on the "big picture" while we address national security concerns. Rep. Jackson Lee noted the serious "privacy and human dignity" implications that the commercialization of this technology can be expected to have.

Source: Hearing testimony

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Contributed by Jenna Minicucci, AGI Government Affairs.

Last updated June 5, 1997

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