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NRO Director Chris Scolese says commercial space fuels agency’s goals

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The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office plans to quadruple the number of satellites on orbit over the next decade. It will need commercial space companies to help do it.

The spy agency’s success toward that goal will involve “a combination of our partnerships with industry, the advancement of technology, and the coincident reduction in cost of all of those [launch and satellite] systems,” said NRO Director Chris Scolese, in a rare interview for CNBC’s “Manifest Space” podcast.

“It’s helped us improve our reliability so that we can achieve more with more capability at a lower cost,” he said.

The ambitious game plan speaks to the growing role of commercial space companies in national security work.

As startups multiply and spearhead technological advancements, government agencies are attempting to reduce some of the red tape around government contracting and are getting more creative in the ways they partner with industry. The NRO is no exception.

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“It’s much, much less expensive to get into space, and it’s resulted in more commodity spacecraft, if you will, that we can buy off of a production line, which has really reduced the cost,” Scolese said. “Then if you marry those with the sensors that are needed to acquire the information, you can really then go off and expand your architecture in a very affordable way.”

The secretive agency provides the U.S.’ space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, collecting intel to be provided to policymakers, analysts, warfighters and even individuals responding to nature disasters.

It’s a classified office with a classified budget within the Department of Defense. It’s partially staffed by CIA agents and is one of the country’s 18 intelligence agencies. 

In layman’s terms, the NRO operates America’s extensive network of spy satellites. 

Scolese said for specialized or unique capabilities, the traditional method of issuing a request for proposal and launching a competitive bidding and development process is still best.

But if there’s a relevant spacecraft or a sensor already under development or in production commercially, it may make more sense to simply purchase that off-the-shelf hardware.

Similarly, with some companies already taking images or operating radar programs, the NRO can “buy the data from them … so that we don’t have to … go off and duplicate activities that we can reliably get from industry,” he said.

An example: the Strategic Commercial Enhancement’s Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) Framework, a program that enables the assessment and acquisition of new and emerging sensor technologies. The BAA has been used to procure electro-optical imagery, synthetic aperture radar and radio frequency sensing data, with various awards going to startups including Planet, BlackSky, Spire Global and others over the past few years.

From satellite images of Russia building up forces on the Ukraine border ahead of the 2022 invasion, to the data amassed and released publicly by companies like Planet regarding the Chinese balloon that traversed the continental U.S. in February, commercial players increasingly demonstrate their mettle.

“[It’s] the marriage of the two sets of capabilities,” said Scolese. “Then if you throw in our international partners as well, you really get a multiplication factor there that allows you to do more, and to do it more efficiently, as we do it with our partners.”

Beginning Wednesday, the agency will host a tech forum to engage further with executives from more than 100 companies that are expected to attend. The hope is that new ideas emerging within the private sector or academia could be applied to the NRO’s evolving operations.

Scolese said the agency is also looking to advance new technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning, even quantum sensing and communications.

As space becomes a more contested domain, the NRO, much like the U.S. Space Force, is focused on securing assets, including implementing a “more proliferated architecture” of more satellites in more orbits, making it more difficult for adversaries or bad actors to do harm to critical space infrastructure.

NRO partners closely with both the U.S. Space Command and the Space Force. The agency and the Space Force, for example, are collaborating on the development of a highly classified new space situational awareness constellation called SilentBarker, for which the first satellite is expected to launch this summer.

“Manifest Space,” hosted by CNBC’s Morgan Brennan, focuses on the billionaires and brains behind the ever-expanding opportunities beyond our atmosphere. Brennan holds conversations with the mega moguls, industry leaders and startups in today’s satellite, space and defense industries. In “Manifest Space,” sit back, relax and prepare for liftoff.

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