The Birth of Commercial Satellite Imagery

The Space Review has an interesting interview with Mark Brender, one of the early proponents of using commercial satellite imagery in journalism. There’s a lot that’s interesting, including the fact that it was imagery of Chernobyl from the French SPOT satellite that kickstarted the process and that the US government was very ambivalent about private citizens having access to high-resolution imagery.

Like pretty much every American space story since 1920, this is also a story about the military-industrial relationship. The first American commercial high-resolution imagery satellite, IKONOS, was a joint venture between two military contractors (Lockeed and Raytheon) who were anxious about a shrinking post-Cold War market. And, since commercial imagery became commonplace, the US military has become more and more reliant on it. In 2012, Danger Room was estimating that three-quarters of US government imagery needs were fulfilled by non-government satellites, with government sales constituting more than half of the revenue for the two big US imagery firms GeoEye and DigitalGlobe (which merged in 2013). So, after many missteps in trying to make government imagery work for the private sector (RIP National Applications Office), the process has ended up going in reverse: imagery procurement has been outsourced to the private sector, funded by the government need but with the opportunity to sell it to everyone else as well.

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