The Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992

After nearly a decade of attempting to guide the complex process of land remote sensing in the U.S., the 1984 Land Remote Sensing Commercialization Act was repealed; in its place, U.S. Congress passed the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992.

This action was prompted by what many observers consider a failed attempt at commercialisation and the inability of the old law’s provisions to meet the compelling needs of scientific research. The new law attempts to address these failures and, in many respects, has been successful.

The Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992

On October 5, 1992, the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 (Policy Act) was passed, repealing the Land Remote-Sensing Commercialization Act of 1984 (Landsat Act). The new law demonstrated that the U.S. national understanding of the value of remote sensing technology had matured. As the new law’s name indicated, long-term remote sensing policy — and its numerous facets — had become the focus of national decision making, rather than a single use.

Specific matters addressed by the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 include program management, Landsat 7 procurement, Landsat 4 to 7 data policy, transfer of Landsat 6 program responsibilities, regulatory authority and administration of public and private remote sensing systems, federal research and development, advanced technology demonstration, Landsat 7 successor systems, data availability and archiving, and the continued prohibition of weather satellite commercialisation.

As a whole, the new legislation has four primary features: a focus on the value of remote sensing in conducting global change research and other public sector applications; a retreat from the attempted commercialisation of remote sensing as practised since 1984; a more formal merger of national security and environmental remote sensing activities; and provisions for the future evolution of remote sensing policy.

The expanded awareness of remote sensing’s value is still accompanied by some familiar problems that threaten to limit the new law’s promise. The most significant specific matter left unaddressed by the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 is funding. Many of the legislation’s major provisions, like the management program, continued research and development, and the technology demonstration program, require adequate funding if the legislative mandate is to be carried out by those responsible for executing the then new law.

Environmental concerns in the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992

The congressional findings that supported the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 revealed an important shift that had occurred in recognising the value of land remote sensing technology to the quality of life on Earth. The law recognised that Landsat data had research value to educational institutions and non-profit public interest entities, as well as to federal governmental researchers, and that “the cost of Landsat data has impeded [its] use for scientific purposes”. Availability of un-enhanced Landsat data to U.S. government-supported researchers and agencies was the “minimum” standard set by the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 with full availability of Landsat 7 data “to all users at the cost of fulfilling user requests” its long-term objective.

Unlike the 1984 Land Remote Sensing Commercialization Act, which only tersely acknowledged the environmental applications of remote sensing data, the first congressional finding in the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 declares that data from space “are of major benefit in studying and understanding human impacts on the global environment”. Global change research and the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) are both specifically cited as activities to be supported by the acquisition of un-enhanced Landsat data. Despite the law’s recognition of the data needs of educational and non-profit institutions, statutory data distribution details were scant. A detailed data distribution plan has evolved in the give-and-take of negotiations among government agencies and the Landsat 6 contractor, and the U.S. government and foreign global change research partners. The question of whether the Act’s emphasis on global change research is the best way for remote sensing to address global change is also raised by the law.

National security

The new law recognises that “Landsat data are particularly important for national security purposes and global environmental change research”, and presages what may become more common in the future: a dovetailing of national security and environmental institutions and activities. This, and many other aspects of defence conversion, will be a major challenge for the U.S.A. in the 1990s. The post-Cold War draw-down of military forces will release large amounts of human and technological resources into the national economy.

In the case of remote sensing the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 authorises the U.S. President to declassify intelligence satellite technology for the Landsat demonstration program. It is unrealistic to expect that the civil space program — which is minuscule compared to the enormous size of the defence establishment — will be able to, or should, absorb all of the newly-available resources. However, some conversion is certain, and it may be necessary to create new kinds of institutions to facilitate it. The Landsat Program Management provisions are specific enough to provide a possible model for doing so.

The Secretary of Defense and the NASA Administrator are jointly responsible for the Landsat Management Program and meeting its “fundamental goal”: unclassified data continuity. This reflects the congressional finding that the U.S.A.’s “broad civilian, national security, commercial and foreign policy interests will be best served by ensuring that Landsat remains an unclassified program that operates according to the principles of open skies and non-discriminatory access”.

Concluding remarks

The Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 has progressed beyond the 1984 Land Remote Sensing Commercialization Act, and has provided the elements necessary for vital U.S. remote-sensing institutions that can direct the U.S.A.’s remote-sensing future, and positively influence international remote-sensing activities. At the same time, it lacked clarity and some important provisions.

An important lesson for resolving the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992’s ambiguity in a productive and beneficial manner has been gained from a decade of experience with the 1984 Land Remote Sensing Commercialization Act. That law ultimately failed because of its narrow focus, short-term values, and lack of directed follow-through. Relevant as it is to the human condition, the global environment, and the global economy, remote sensing is, and will be, one of the most important technologies of the twenty-first century.