Radar Mapping Mission Makes Strange Bedfellows of JPL, Defense Department

By Paul Hoversten
Space.Com Washington Bureau Chief
posted: 05:16 pm EST
24 January 2000

WASHINGTON -- There were more than a few eyebrows raised among JPL's scientists at the thought of bringing the Pentagon along on a civilian space mission. The biggest concern was that the Defense Department (DOD) might insist on having the resulting data classified, something a public-minded agency like NASA could not tolerate.

"It was kind of unknown territory for us," said Michael Kobrick, JPL's project scientist for Endeavour's flight. "My first reaction was, do we really want to get involved with the military and all their 'black' programs?"

After some persuasion, NIMA agreed with the scientists that the data from the shuttle mission should be publicly available. It will take about two years for the images to be released. By agreement with NASA, the finest detail images are to remain in the hands of U.S. researchers while the rest of the world will get the next best set.

"It took us awhile to convince [NIMA] that there's a real need in the science community for these images," Kobrick said. "We're in the world of publish or perish and we told them that if it's going to end up being classified, then there's no benefit for us. Since then, we've gotten along famously and the relationship with them, I'd say, has been terrific."

Early on, there was a "definite difference in culture" between the JPL scientists and NIMA's people, said Thomas Farr, JPL's deputy project scientist. "They're much more customer-oriented in that they're looking to have a product to give to the different [military] services. We're more research-oriented, looking at what we can put in the scientific papers."

The differences extended even to the choice of attire -- button-down Beltway versus Californian casual. "They started coming out in suits and ties," Farr said, "and gradually loosened up a bit."

Probably the biggest surprise to the NIMA researchers was when they sat in on a dress rehearsal of the mission at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. In one simulation, mission controllers threw all sorts of problems at Endeavour's crew, alarming the NIMA crowd.

"You saw their eyes get a little wide," Farr said. "They got a little scared when they saw all these contingencies thrown in. But it made them aware of all the difficulties that you can encounter on a mission."

Despite the camaraderie, the mission may be the last shuttle flight for the foreseeable future in which the Pentagon is aboard.

"This is basically a one-time deal," said John Pike, space policy director at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "I think DOD is quite happy launching its own satellites on the un-reliable Titans which have a bad habit of blowing up. In this case, they saw a good thing and decided to take advantage of it."