Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

The Perils of Landsat from Grassroots to Globalization: A Comprehensive Review of US Remote Sensing Law with a Few Thoughts for the Future

Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

The Perils of Landsat from Grassroots to Globalization: A Comprehensive Review of US Remote Sensing Law with a Few Thoughts for the Future

Article excerpt


The United States has made an important decision on the fate of the Landsat system, the world's oldest, civilian land remote sensing system. The Landsat heritage will be continued for the long-term, with the Operational Land Imager ("OLI") that will provide Landsat-kke. imaging. It will be integrated on the first National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System ("NPOESS") spacecraft scheduled for launch in 2009.1 NPOESS is an integrated US military-civilian environmental satellite program and its activities are being further integrated into a complete, technologically advanced system by sharing science and data with space and environmental monitoring agencies in Europe and Japan. In the short-term, Landsaf's future was grim until February 4, 2005 when a Presidential decision was made to add funds to its FY2006 budget.2

Like the heroine of an episodic silent film serial, the Landsaf program has been tied to the figurative railroad tracks a number of times in its tumultuous history. Like that heroine, it has also been yanked from certain doom at the last minute by a critically-timed intervention. The bureaucratie version of plucking the heroine from the path of a rapidly approaching train has been to tap the budgets of the many Federal agencies that rely heavily on Landsat data and collect enough money to keep the program going. This administrative hatpassing did the job for a while and the program continued, until its next session on the metaphorical tracks.

In the most recent crisis, the Senate had once again begun to brush off the Federal funding fedora.3 Faced with the real possibility that the hat would remain empty, however, alternate plans were also being made to shut the program down.4 With the metaphorical train whistle becoming increasingly closer and louder, the Presidential decision has once again whisked our heroine to safety-for now.5

Three choices were available to meet the crisis. The first was to end the Landsat program. This would have ignored the universally recognized value of Landsat data to both the public and private sectors. The second option was a multiple choice: a) privatize; b) commercialize; or c) establish joint interagency operations. All of these were the wrong choices because they have all been attempted and failed. The third choice was to do the only thing that has not been done in thirty-three years: declare the Landsat program operational, give it a permanent institutional home and budget and integrate it in the growing trend to internationalize Earth observation satellite operations.6 The Presidential decision to ensure short-term operations along with the long-term integration of the OLI into NPOESS comes closest to the third choice. US land remote sensing appears to have stabilized for the foreseeable future. However, even with these decisions made, it appears that there will be a data gap and there are still opportunities to place Landsat-OU on the metaphorical tracks yet again.

Therefore, the purpose of this article is twofold. The first is to strongly state that the time has come for a long-term, stable, transparent, globalizationera approach for OLI, née Landsat. The second purpose is to provide a comprehensive review of US remote sensing law and the environment in which it evolved to provide an institutional memory for future actions.

The paper is in four parts. The first is this introduction. The second section identifies some of the macro forces that have been at play in the evolution of the Landsat program. In the third section, US land remote sensing is organized into four eras according to the legal foundation that existed in each. Each era is discussed in a brief synopsis followed by a description of its statutory foundation. The fourth section offers some lessons learned and raises some thoughts about the land remote sensing era that has just begun with the two most recent decisions.


The Landsat program was in need of rescue yet again because it has yet to be institutionalized as a globalization era asset. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.