The National Reconnaissance Office, the agency responsible for designing, building and operating the nation’s reconnaissance satellites celebrates its 50th birthday this year.
And, in addition to its renewed sense of mission for the 21st century, the agency also has a milestone under its belt — the launch of the largest spy satellite in reconnaissance history.
The agency’s background and birth are a little muddled, but what’s to expect from a super-secret agency that wasn’t even officially declassified until 1992. President Eisenhower first approved reconnaissance systems in the late 1950s. Back then, the technology consisted of high-altitude balloons and airplanes along with the satellites.
But with the Soviet launch of Sputnik and the opening shots of the space race, NRO officially grew its wings beginning in the early 1960s.
The motto the agency has chosen to mark its half a century of existence is “50 years of vigilance from above.”
And, while the potency of space as the final frontier has seemed to dim in recent years, NRO has fought back from that perceived decline, once again reasserting an authority that was born during the heady days of the space race, even as it faces the swiftly approaching and changing frontier of cybersecurity.
Earlier this year, retired Air Force Gen. Bruce Carlson, the director of NRO, spoke at the National Space Symposium about the future of the organization as it approaches middle age, its priorities and its place in an increasingly cyber-oriented world.
Carlson laid out the goals and the priorities for NRO, as he saw them when he took his post in 2009.
The first priority, Carlson said, was mostly one of logistics: executing scheduled satellite launches on time and within the budget.
Carlson said he is overseeing “probably the most aggressive launch schedule that this organization has undertaken in the last twenty-five years,” with a number of critical large-scale recon satellites going into orbit over the next year and a half.
However, even as NRO prepares for a flurry of activity, the launch infrastructure “is not what it used to be.”
That leads to the agency’s second priority: improving the launch business, which has been pecked away at by the downsizing of launch locations and sufficient crew.
But he said NRO has now begun to “stabilize the decline,” and even improved its access to space through “improving the business of launch.”
The third step is to improve NRO’s development and investment of science and technology, Carlson said.
Calling research and development the “seed corn of the future,” he added that within the agency’s 2012 budget, he will include a “roadmap” to return NRO to where it used to be as a beacon of science and technology.
The fourth priority, Carlson said, was focusing on the people, which for NRO means a mix of civilian employees, military personnel and contractors.
On the topic of cyber, Carlson said NRO was equipped to handle what many defense experts now call the final frontier. “We’ve figured it out,” he said, adding that NRO simply couldn’t do its job today without harnessing the power of cyberspace.
“It’s not so much just the Internet,” he said, “it’s the communications and computer network that we have that converts the ones and zeros that come down from space into usable intelligence for the warfighter, for our national security apparatus and those that do intelligence analysis in our country and in others.”
Even though NRO has reached a renewed vitality, the specter of looming budget cuts hangs over the heads of many agencies these days, even ones engaged in work vital to national security.
But Carlson is even-tempered and even-handed about budget cuts as well.
“I don’t think it’s fair for us in the defense intelligence business to believe that we should get an inappropriate share of the national wealth,” he said, especially as the nation recovers from a severe economic downturn. “We’re going to have to work hard to make sure our highest priorities are funded and I believe we are going to see level or maybe even slightly declining budgets in the next few years but we can work through that.”
Carlson’s optimistic remarks about the future of the NRO seem to have been borne out by recent events.
Just last week, the U.S. military announced it had sent the largest-ever spy satellite into space, carrying a classified payload, or cargo capacity, for NRO.
“This mission helps to ensure that vital NRO resources will continue to bolster our national defense,” said Brig. Gen. Ed Wilson, commander of the 45th Space Wing, which was in charge of the launch.