The Hubble Space Telescope, which is soon to be retired, has many similarities to the NRO telescopes (Credits: NASA).

A USA Today article highlights details surrounding the two space telescopes gifted to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The information, which was obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request made to NASA by USA Today, consists of a question and answer sheet provided to NASA Public Affairs personnel. The information provided addresses such matters as:

• what hardware was transferred, including technical specifications;
• where the equipment is located and who presently controls it;
• why the NRO transferred the equipment to NASA and what the approximate worth of the equipment is;
• what NASA’s plans are for the equipment and what will happen to it if NASA cannot afford to utilize it; and
• what NRO program originally produced the equipment and whether any classified material was removed from the telescopes before their transfer to NASA;

The information provided by NASA appears to be talking-points to address specific questions that might be posed to the agency by the public and the media.  While it provides some substantive information, it skillfully avoids questions surrounding the original classified nature of the telescopes.  NASA’s quick response to the request signals a willingness to be open and frank as much as security rules allow and may be an attempt to satisfy the public and media’s curiosity over the details surrounding the original purpose of the equipment and focus attention away from the telescopes’ original owner.

The NRO approached NASA about the potential of transfering the two former spy telescopes in August 2011.  The actual transfer of ownership took place in January 2012. Up until last week, the existence of the two telescopes and the transfer to NASA was not public knowledge.

It is unclear why the disclosure was made considering that a study by the National Academy of Science to determine the use of the telescopes has yet to begin. More over, the Freedom of Information Act request filed by USA Today took mere days to be fulfilled and while it is unclear how much of the document provided by NASA was redacted, the fact that NASA provided it so quickly suggests that the agency wants to quell rumors and speculation that might otherwise grow around the transaction.

The question remains whether NASA can find a practical application for one or both of the former spy telescopes.  Cleary, opportunity has knocked for NASA in this era of tight budgets and funding cuts for large-scale programs.  Whether NASA will be able to open the door to that opportunity remains to be seen.


About the author

Michael J. Listner


Michael is an attorney and the founder/principal of Space Law and Policy Solutions, which is a firm that counsels governmental and private organizations on matters relating to space law and policy, including issues surrounding space debris. Michael serves as the Vice-President of Legal Affairs for the International Space Safety Foundation and on January 1, 2013 assumed the role of President and CEO (Interim) for the ISSF. Michael formally served as Space Safety Magazine's Legal and Policy Editor and its General Counsel. Michael holds a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Computer Information Systems from Franklin Pierce University and obtained his Juris Doctorate (J.D.) from Regent University School of Law, and he is a member of the New Hampshire Bar. Michael can be contacted at Follow Michael on Twitter @ponder68.

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