Space Technology Hall of Fame Dinner

18th National Space Symposium – April 11, 2002

Dave Thompson
President & CEO, Spectrum Astro



Dave Thompson: Thank you Elliot.  Before I start my remarks, I think everybody in this room tonight ought to go out and buy one of those radio receivers.  We have some real pioneers here.  You know a lot of these commercial ventures have had trouble.  I think the least thing we can do is support the people in our industry who are pioneers, so my hat is off to these folks.


Ladies and gentlemen, we have a nice video for you tonight including some remarks by our commander-in-chief, but as I was preparing my introduction for that, several people approached me from this crowd.  Please, no offense Elliot, but they told me that some of the sessions were a little boring.  One guy said, “You know I brought all of my crossword puzzles and I worked them in the back row.  So Dave, could you please spice it up a little bit tonight?  Could you maybe inject a little something that people can think about after the symposium is over?” 


So I racked my brain and I tried to think of who or what I could talk about tonight to send a useful message to such a distinguished audience.  Well, I couldn't jump on the industry like I did three years ago because they are making good progress.  And I won't talk about the Air Force, because as you will see in our video, their stuff is working pretty well right now.  Take a guess.  Well, what about NASA?  I talked about the great turnaround that they did last year - three guys.  So who's left - DARPA and NOAA - they seem to be doing fine so we can't have any fun there. 


Oh yes, then there's that other space agency - the one that spends a big fraction of the GNP - the National Reconnaissance Office or the NRO.  I think I can say that since I used to work there a few years ago.  Lets take an unclassified look at how the NRO is doing tonight.  You know, I went to the NRO's Web site today.  They have a public Web site now and on their Web site it says "One team revolutionizing global reconnaissance."  Let me repeat that: "One team revolutionizing global reconnaissance." 


Well, maybe they are one team but they aren't revolutionizing anything at the NRO.  They're evolving at about the speed fish evolved into reptiles.  Oh there's more.  Perhaps a better slogan for the NRO's Web site would be "You could buy better but you can't pay more."  For you see, the image that the NRO likes to portray to all of us regular people is the image of being lean, mean, fast and black.  Sadly today, the NRO is none of those.  Well, they'll probably be mean to me after they hear this pitch tonight.  But I say if you can't take the heat, get out of your mahogany paneled office. 


Over the past decade, the NRO has posted a sorry decline into mediocrity and aristocracy.  Today's NRO is a rogue agency arrogant and holier than thou.  And you know when you are holier than thou then you had better be holy.  Just ask the Catholic Church’s bishops about that.  The NRO staff is a know-it-all about everything.  You've dealt with them - you can't tell them anything.  They already know far more than you do. 


But there are a few things that the NRO is doing right, and I have one serious comment that I would like to make.  Today's NRO's security apparatus is 75% more efficient, 300% faster and focused on the right issues, and my hat goes off to the improved security program at the NRO.  And I hope you will join me in some applause for that because they worked that hard. 


Now beyond that let me tell you that the NRO knows how to build one hell of an office building.  They have the nicest office complex in all of America, granite and marble, soaring stainless steel and glass, and mahogany desks in private offices.  That new NRO Taj Mahal is really nice and they have the nicest cafeteria in all of America.  You can eat in little Mexico, little Italy, you can have southern grits and bacon, eight kinds of bread, five kinds of gourmet soup and sixteen toppings for your ice cream dessert.  Chairman Walker could you get President Bush and Laura out for Sunday brunch?  I'm sure they must have Sunday Brunch at the NRO cafeteria.  I promise you it's nicer than the White House cafeteria.  But where are those revolutionary satellites that they promised us? 


Lets blow up some myths about the NRO.  First, we know that they are not cheaper - they admit that, but they claim to be better.  Remember what I said about being holy?  For example, there was this one satellite system that they built a few years ago where they spent about $200 million redesigning the power sub system to make sure that they didn't run low on power a few days of the year.  Now you've heard of the $600 toilet seat.  I call that the $200 million light switch that’s called gold plating and you would call it waste. 


For $150 million NASA flew to Mars, landed on the planet, dropped off a Rover and sent back data for a month.  For $200 million the NRO bought a five-day insurance policy.  Now they claim to be streamlined and have the best-streamlined procurement system that’s faster - and that’s not true either.  The average time for the NRO to deploy a new major system to first launch is about ten years.  Actually they're slower than the Air Force and NASA.  Of course, that includes time for them to mangle the procurement a couple of times, decide what to do two or three times and actually build something.  In fact, I think a careful evaluation will show that the NRO has the worst track record for successfully completing first time procurements than the Air Force does. 


And they are certainly not lean.  They have thousands of staff members out there at the Taj Mahal, seas of contractors at their headquarters to make their viewgraphs and to do endless studies on what to do.  The NRO never heard of spiral, or maybe they lost the recipe in the last ten years, I don't know.  You know the NRO's procurement policy could be better described in three steps.  I call this the policy of the smoked filled room.  Step one - get all of the graybeards into the smoke filled room.  Step two - close the door.  Step three - pick the club member contractor who sucked up best. 


Well, I guess that does it for me.  What about the area of Industrial Base Management?  You know we've heard a lot about Industrial Base. I would say that the Industrial Base Management Policy of the NRO could best be described as lurching - lurching back and forth from over concentration at one contractor to over concentration at another, frittering away key investments and payload technology. 


A good example of that was on FIAF which was publicly announced a few years ago where they bundled the procurement and they vaporized huge investments in industrial base and technology.  Maybe Norman will have a few comments about that later.  Unfortunately, none of this has done anything to make innovative new satellites to fight Al Qaeda, which is our number one priority today. 


So I ask again, where are the innovative new satellites at a time when our president - who you're going to hear from in a minute - and the office of the Secretary of Defense and the secretaries are calling for transforming the military and skipping a generation of technology in some new systems.  The NRO is actually moving backwards, getting less capability and fielding less capable technology for the future.  You know the NRO's real slogan should be "Buying Yesterday's Technology at Tomorrow’s Prices." 


But of all the things that I have discussed tonight, the worst is yet to come.  The last bastion of NRO pride and arrogance is their technical performance, which has slowly melted away.  The NRO has suffered a shocking decline in the technical performance of its satellites over the past several years.  They haven't told you about that because it’s been kept behind those doors. 


At an unclassified level, let me describe how serious this is, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Satellites, where the primary mission payload failed a few days after launch.  Satellites - where components got so hot that they actually melted causing mission failure due to thermal analysis failures, something that we've known about since the 1960's.  Satellites - which after spending billions of dollars in development cannot perform their basic housekeeping functions, which we've been demonstrating again since the 1960's.  Satellites - which again, after spending billions of dollars in development, the primary payload does not meet its basic performance specifications.  It's the NRO's own version of the Hubble Space Telescope.  And that satellite that we spent the extra two hundred million on for the light switch, it had constant power upsets to its computer once it got in orbit.  Many satellites never even got launched as they meandered their way through years of technical and program management mismanagement.  Yet no one was held accountable.


I can't even describe many more technical disasters, as it would be too revealing.  Everything that I just described to you, and much more, was just swept quietly under the rug.  And then they have the nerve to beat their chest and make fun of the Air Force and NASA.  I say they are a bunch of hypocrites.  And I hear that some people are considering sending SBIRS High or Mil Satcom over to be executed by the NRO.  All I can say to that is "good luck." 


Last but not least, the NRO exhibits an astounding lack of revolutionary innovation to get Al Qaeda.  It's not because of a lack of good ideas.  They are getting tons of good ideas thrown at them.  The overrunning large programs are sucking every possible dollar out of the future cutting-edge projects.  What is the NRO's staffs answer to that? "We need more money."  Well, maybe they do, because we've got to get the capability somehow, but first I think they need a swift kick in the pants. 


So how can we fix the NRO?  It's too complex to discuss in the limited time we have available tonight, but I think we should start with accountability.  Luckily, we have three newly seated and highly qualified people who can fix the NRO if they will: Secretary Aldridge, Secretary Teets, who we heard from yesterday, and Mr. Fitzgerald.  We don't need, please, another commission or another panel or another group of graybeards. 


So, I call upon these men tonight and I call upon the NRO's employees.  I'm sure a few are in the audience tonight. I call upon you all in the audience tonight.  I call upon the space commanders that are here tonight, the Congressional Oversight Committees, and the White House itself and I call on Chairman Walker and the White House - please fix the broken NRO.  Tonight our country is at war, our young troops are on a battlefield a half a world away.  We would like to show you how our military space systems are helping them win and how we are going to make them even better for the future.  We'd like to open that with some words from our commander-in-chief.