The biggest setback that Boeing’s defense business has encountered in this decade came when the government decided to scale back the company’s role in the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA). FIA was supposed to provide the next generation of imaging spy satellites, so when Boeing beat 40-year incumbent Lockheed Martin to win the program it was a huge coup. However, its plan to build satellites that were both lighter and more capable than legacy spysats proved very hard to execute. The Bush Administration eventually tossed Boeing off the part of the contract involved in building more precise electro-optical satellites, leaving it with responsibility for radar-imaging satellites.
Radar imaging from orbit offers much less precision than the ten-centimeter resolution of electro-optical satellites. However, it has one big advantage: it can see through clouds and darkness. The radio-frequency energy that radar satellites use to build images of surface objects is not impeded by cloud cover or nightfall the way visible light and infrared energy are. So while radar imagery may not be as clear as electro-optical imagery, it can be invaluable in many situations. And the good news for Boeing is that the head of the National Reconnaissance Office says the company is “performing remarkably well” on its radar-satellite contract.
That observation comes from NRO director and retired Air Force general Bruce Carlson, in an interview this week with Warren Ferster and Turner Brinton of Space News. Carlson says there are still some “engineering hurdles” to overcome, but he expects a successful launch “pretty much on schedule.” His positive assessment matters a lot to Boeing’s future business outlook, and not just because it needs to rebuild credibility after the mis-steps on electro-optical spacecraft. Radar tracking and imaging from space has huge potential for monitoring virtually every future security threat the U.S. faces, and someday the Pentagon will fund a system more capable than that begun under the FIA program. Being able to point to a recent success in building space-based radars could position Boeing nicely for a role in that program.
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