CIESIN Reproduced, with permission, from:

Box 4-A--The Landsat Program

The United States initiated the Landsat program in 1969 as a research activity. NASA launched Landsat 1 in 1972.[1] Data from the Landsat system soon proved capable of serving a wide variety of government and private sector needs for spatial information about the land surface and coastal areas. NASA designed, built, and operated Landsats 1-3. The perceived potential economic value of Landsat imagery led the Carter administration to consider commercial operation of the system and begin transferring control of Landsat operations and data distribution from NASA to the private sector. The first step in the transition gave operational control of the Landsat system to NOM in 1981, because of NOM's extensive experience in operating remote sensing satellites for weather and climate observations. Landsat 4 was launched in 1982; Landsat 5[2] became operational in 1984.[3]

In late 1983, the Reagan administration took steps to speed transfer operation of Landsat 4 and 5 to private hands because it did not want to continue public funding for the system. A few proponents of commercialization expected that industry could soon build a sufficient data market to support a land remote sensing system.[4] Soon thereafter, Congress began consideration of the Land Remote Sensing Commercialization Act of 1984, which was intended to provide legislative authority for the transfer process. Public Law 98-365 was signed into law on July 17, 1984. During deliberations over the Landsat Act, the administration issued a request for proposal (RFP) for industry to operate Landsat and any follow-on satellite system. After competitive bidding,[5] NOM transferred control of operations and marketing of data to EOSAT in 1985.[6] At present, EOSAT operates Landsats 4 and 5 under contract to the Department of Commerce,[7] and manages distribution and sales of data from Landsats 1-5. EOSAT will operate Landsat 6, which is scheduled for launch in the summer of 1993. The U.S. Government has paid for the Landsat 6 satellite and the launch. EOSAT will operate the satellite at its expense.

Because of concerns over continuity of data collection and delivery, Congress passed the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992, which transfers control of the Landsat program from NOM to DoD and NASA. This legislation effectively ends the experiment to privatize the Landsat program. The two agencies will procure and operate Landsat 7.


1 Initially called the Earth Resources Technology Satellite, NASA retroactively changed its name in 1975.

2 Landsats 4 and 5 were designed by NASA and built by GE and Hughes Santa Barbara Research Center.

3 See U.S. Congress. Congressional Research Service, The Future of Land Remote Sensing Satellite System (Landsat), 91-685 SPR (Washington, DC: The Library of Congress, Sept. 16, 1991 ) for a more complete account of the institutional history of Landsat.

4 However, most analysts were extremely pessimistic about such prospects. See U.S. Congress, Congressional Budget Office, Encouraging Private Investment in Space Activities (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, February 1991), ch. 3.

5 Seven firms responded to the RFP, from which two were selected for further negotiations--EOSAT and Kodak/Fairchild. After a series of negotiations, during which the government changed the ground rules of the RFP, Kodak dropped out, leaving EOSAT to negotiate with the Department of Commerce.

6 EOSAT was established as a joint venture by RCA (now part of Martin Marietta Astrospace) and Hughes Space and Communications Group (now part of General Motors) for this purpose.

7 Subsystems in both satellites have failed, but together they function as a nearly complete satellite system. EOSAT has taken great care to nurse these two satellites along, in order to maintain continuity of data delivery until Landsat 6 is operational.

SOURCE: U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Remotely Sensed Data from Space: Distribution, Pricing and Applications (Washington, DC: Office of Technology Assessment, July 1992), pp. 2-3.