A team of Southern California aerospace companies is covertly
recruiting engineers across the country for a new generation of spy
satellites under what analysts believe is the largest
intelligence-related contract ever.
The supersecret project for the National Reconnaissance Office is
estimated to be worth up to $25 billion over two decades, providing a
major boost to the Southland's aerospace industry and solidifying the
area's dominance of high-tech space research.
Equipped with powerful telescopes and radar, the nation's newest eye
in space is expected to form the backbone of U.S. intelligence for
several decades, analysts said. The satellites will be farther out in
space and harder to detect than the massive spy probes that currently
orbit the Earth. They will also be able to fly over and take pictures of
military compounds anywhere in the world, in darkness or through cloud
cover, with far more frequency.
|NRO: Big Brothers Eyes in the Sky
As the 21st century approaches, the NRO is guided by its vision of being Freedom's Sentinel in Space: One Team, Revolutionizing Global Reconnaissance.
The mission of the National Reconnaissance Office is to enable U.S. global information superiority, during peace through war. The NRO is responsible for the unique and innovative technology, large-scale systems engineering, development and acquisition, and operation of space reconnaissance systems and related intelligence activities needed to support global information superiority.
Company officials are restricted from talking about the highly
classified contract, but Roger Roberts, general manager of the Boeing Co.
unit in Seal Beach overseeing the project, gave a hint of its scope.
The endeavor will require 5,000 engineers, technicians and computer
programmers over the next five years, and that will just be for the
initial design and development of the satellites, he said.
That figure doesn't include thousands more who will be required to
assemble the satellites, most likely at Boeing Satellite Systems in El
Segundo, and thousands of workers employed by hundreds of subcontractors
and parts suppliers such as the 1,900-employee Marconi Integrated Systems
in San Diego. Sending the satellites into space will also require new
rockets, which should also bolster the launch industry.
The need for engineers has been so great that two months ago Boeing
opened a recruitment office in Sunnyvale, where it is targeting both
dot-com survivors and Lockheed Martin Corp. engineers who built many of
the spy satellites now in orbit. After dominating that business since the
1950s, Lockheed lost the new contract to Boeing.
John Pike, a Washington, D.C.-based military space consultant,
believes that in all, the work could eventually mean jobs for at least
20,000 people in California.
"Lots of kids will be sent to college, lots of swimming pools are
going to get built and a lot of people will spend their career working on
this project," Pike said.
Still, most state officials said they know little about the project.
"I don't think most people are aware of how big this is," said Mike
Marando, spokesman for the California Technology, Trade and Commerce
Agency. "We know California benefits substantially, but by exactly how
much we just don't know."
The National Reconnaissance Office hasn't helped. The enigmatic agency
announced the contract in a three-paragraph news release posted on its
bare-bones Web site little more than a year ago. The project is
officially known as Future Imagery Architecture.
Despite slowly opening itself up in recent years, the NRO still
remains one of the most secretive government agencies. Even its innocuous
logo--a space probe circling the globe--was a secret until 1994.
Besides saying it awarded the contract to Boeing "to develop, provide
launch integration and operate the nation's next generation of imagery
reconnaissance satellites," not much else has been revealed.
Virtually everything else about the contract--its dollar amount, the
number of satellites to be built, who is doing what and where, and the
capabilities of the satellite--is secret. Even the duration of the
contract is deemed classified.
"This program is so secret that most of the people who work on it
won't have a good sense of what they are doing," said Loren Thompson, a
defense analyst at the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute.
Still, aerospace analysts have been able to draw some conclusions
through past reconnaissance programs based on public information gleaned
from different sources, such as watching the size and frequency of rocket
launches carrying secret spy satellites.
Analysts generally agree that the number of satellites involved in the
new program will be at least a dozen to two dozen, compared with roughly
half a dozen spy satellites now in orbit. The new models are likely to be
significantly smaller and cheaper than the current generation of spy
satellites, which cost about $1 billion each, weigh 15 tons and can take
up to 18 months to build.
With a bigger constellation of satellites, the probes will be able to
revisit and take pictures of an area more frequently than the current
versions. The need is driven in part by inadequacies identified during
the Persian Gulf War, when military commanders complained about
intelligence photos arriving late.
The new system would be less detectable by those being observed. For
instance, U.S. intelligence officials were alarmed recently when they
found a large contingent of North Korean troops lined up near the
demilitarized zone with South Korea. Analysts believe that the North
Koreans were able to move troops undetected by coordinating the operation
with the orbit of a U.S. spy satellite.
And with improvements in optical and radar technology, U.S.
intelligence officials hope to place the satellites at a higher orbit so
they can take pictures of a ground target for a longer period.
Satellites can now "linger" over an area about 10 minutes. U.S.
officials hope to double that span with the new probes. In all, the
Federation of American Scientists believes the new satellites will be
able to collect eight to 20 times more images than the current system.
The agency now operates three optical satellites called KeyHole, which
take photographic and infrared images, and three school-bus-size radar
satellites known as Lacrosse, which can see through clouds and darkness,
analysts said. Boeing is building both types of satellites under the
"They were talking about integrating new technology and building
satellites that are one-third the size that NRO is used to," said Marco
A. Caceres, a senior space analyst for the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.
"They're going to be cheaper, but there are also going to be a lot more
In an unusual moment of candor, an NRO spokesman confirmed last week
that the satellites will be smaller and cheaper but more numerous than
the current crop.
"I can tell you that we plan to begin launching [the satellites]
around . . . 2005," said spokesman Art Haubold. "It's a multiyear effort
that will provide a more capable but less costly means of filling the
nation's imaging needs."
He declined to specify the value of the contract, although he said,
"We're talking about a big part of our business. That's all I can say."
Boeing and other contractors--which would normally gloat--aren't
talking, other than to confirm that they are part of the winning team.
Besides Boeing, which will oversee the contract and build the satellites,
the other main companies include Raytheon Corp., Eastman Kodak Co. and
Harris Corp. Analysts believe that Aerospace Corp., a government-funded
research operation in El Segundo, drew up the blueprints for the new
Although the firms declined to discuss the contract, workers at
Raytheon in El Segundo are probably developing the radar-imaging
equipment as well as the ground-based controls for the satellites.
Meanwhile, Rochester, N.Y.-based Eastman Kodak is working on
processing the images captured by the satellites. The role of Harris
Corp., a Florida-based maker of telecommunications components and
provider of support services to the Defense Department, is unclear.
"I can only confirm that we are a contractor," said Mark Day, a
spokesman for Raytheon's Electronic Systems unit in El Segundo. Raytheon
and Boeing's operations in El Segundo both trace their origins to the
former Hughes Aircraft Co., a longtime handler of top-secret programs
during the Cold War.
The NRO, created in 1960 to build and operate spy satellites, has an
annual budget of at least $6 billion, exceeding yearly spending of either
the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency.
Pike estimates that the new contract accounts for about $1 billion of
the annual budget and has a lifetime of at least 20 years. After
factoring in about $5 billion for design and development, he believes the
total worth of the contract to be as much as $25 billion, which includes
building the satellites and maintaining them. In comparison, the
Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, which at one time employed
as many as 125,000 people, cost the U.S. $20 billion after adjustment for
The NRO program "will be the most expensive program in the history of
the intelligence community," the Federation of American Scientists
Much of that expense will be incurred in the South Bay, an area
represented by Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills), a member of the House
Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which last week received a
classified briefing about the project from the NRO.
"I used to say that the area was the aerospace center of the world,"
Harman said. "I would now say it is the center of the world for
Since the 1950s, U.S. spy satellites had mostly been designed and
built in Northern California at Lockheed Martin's massive 275-acre
Sunnyvale facility, which during its heyday employed more than 30,000
It was in Sunnyvale that the first spy satellites, known as Corona,
were built. Although it made its last flight in 1972, the project's
existence was revealed and declassified only by a special order of
President Bill Clinton about 25 years later.
Declassified documents say the NRO launched 145 Corona satellites,
each of which flew a few days at a time taking photographs with six- to
10-foot resolutions, compared with resolution of approximately six inches
on current satellites.
Instead of transmitting the images to Earth, Corona capsules were
allowed to free-fall and be snatched up in midair by a C-119 Flying
Boxcar, often after several attempts. The capsules usually contained
hundreds of pounds of film.
In late 1999, the NRO stunned the industry and awarded the contract to
build the next generation of spy satellites to a Boeing-led team. The
competition, which took three years, was considered among the fiercest in
recent memory, analysts said.
"I wish I can tell you how we won the contract. It's a story worth
telling your grandchildren," said James Albaugh, president of Boeing's
space and communications business.
In aerospace, Boeing's coup was considered a huge turning point that
reflected a shift in fortunes of the world's top two defense contractors.
Lockheed shares fell for weeks after the news was made public. "This was
the most serious loss for Lockheed in a decade," Thompson said. "This was
a core business for Lockheed for decades. It was a large part of the
reason why Sunnyvale existed at all."
The aftermath is visible at Lockheed's Sunnyvale facility; the massive
structure in which the first spy satellite took shape was recently torn
down for an Internet firm. Nearby, Boeing opened a recruiting office to
handle hundreds of applications weekly from Lockheed engineers drawn by a
"Stars. Sunsets. Satellites. Southern California has it all," it said,
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times