One satellite for the world: The American Landsat earth observation satellite in use, 1953-2008
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In July 1972, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the Earth Resources Technology Satellite-A, later renamed Landsat, which was the first of its kind. NASA launched seven more Landsats with one failure. The satellites orbited north to south covering the entire Earth while its instruments gathered imagery across several spectral bands at medium resolution of the Earth’s terrestrial and coastal surface. Using archival materials, government documents, and informal interviews, my dissertation argues in an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion that the use of Landsat imagery changed over time and that international law and domestic policy deeply affected its availability despite a commitment by the US government to non-discriminatory access. My first chapter argued that agricultural applications became the first major application of Landsat data and later adopted by the intelligence community to conduct economic espionage on the Soviet Union. Using documents from the United Nations and American National Archives, one chapter demonstrated how these institutions deliberated over and configured international law and domestic policy such that Landsat data would be available to developing countries for use. My last two chapters describe how Landsat became a commercial entity which ultimately failed and the government recovered the program and committed to its continuity. Since Landsat’s development in the late 1960s, the satellite program began as a publicly run experimental project, commercialized into a private operation, and later became a public-private partnership. This study has the following major contributions and findings. My dissertation covers the history of the Landsat program from its origins in the 1950s to open data access in 2008 building upon previous studies of Landsat. I also argued that there are four major periods of Landsat’s history. These periods reflect the differing use and availability of Landsat throughout its history. My thesis found that the commercialization of space technology, a fast growing trend, was a highly political process that pushed Landsat from the public to private sector and led to cost-prohibitive data that drove away the user community. Similarly, the US government attempted to foster a strong foreign user base through ground stations and development programs and experienced success as well as difficulty given trade and export policies to certain countries. Lastly, Landsat, despite being a civilian program, was used heavily by the intelligence community in studies of natural resources in America’s Cold War adversaries. Overall, the various applications of Landsat data and the various laws and regulations put into place by the US federal government deeply affected Landsat data availability and ultimately made it more difficult to access throughout much of its history until the 2000s.