Launchin’ lizards

Credit: NRO artist's concept

Credit: NRO artist’s concept

The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office designs and releases some of the most eye-catching and widely shared mission patches ahead of any government agency that puts satellites in orbit.

The patch it produced for NROL-61, the classifed mission that  launched July 27 from Cape Canaveral was no exception. It featured a wide-eyed, tongue-wagging lizard named Spike.

In a series of tweets leading up to launch day, the NRO shows the cartoon Spike running, water bottle in hand, outside a building labeled NRO Training Facility.  Others depict Spike bidding farewell to his lizard family and pulling some serious Gs in an astronaut training centrifuge.

Something about Spike felt odd and it took me a while to figure out why. Why do we know so much about this  fictional Spike and so little about the satellite inside that Atlas 5 payload fairing emblazoned with the lizard’s likeness?

The NRO builds and operates spy satellites so a certain level of secrecy is expected.

But as the Defense Department and intelligence community put greater emphasis on being good stewards of the space commons, there’s been a steady call for greater transparency, and not just from journalists.

In a recent Atlantic Council paper, Joan Johnson-Freese and Teresa Hitchens said the Air Force has shown a “lack of transparency regarding space spending.”

In a session at the Secure World Foundation in May, John Sheldon, chairman of the ThorGroup consultancy, said the United States is “not necessarily prepared to deal with greater transparency.” He pointed to “a military culture that still will not even acknowledge particular (space) systems, for example, even though everybody knows they exist, and so on. We’re not prepared for that transparency regime that is going to happen in the coming decade, and beyond.”

At the same session, Peter Hays, adjunct professor at The George Washington University, called transparency the “No. 1 thing that the United States government needs to work.” Hays said Defense Secretary Ash Carter “believes much of what the United States does in space or what it talks about in space is over-classified.”

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo has vowed to make NGA the U.S. government’s most transparent intelligence agency. Transparency, he has said, stimulates innovation and builds the public’s trust.

Winston Beauchamp, staff director for the Principal DoD Space Adviser, told me his office is working with U.S. Strategic Command and the intelligence community to ensure space programs aren’t unnecessarily labeled classified.

“Typically, across the DoD, we will classify systems that are in development if they need to be protected,” he said. “Then over time, as they are delivered to operations, the classification level will change to make it easier to operate and share information. In space, we haven’t always done that. We’ve often kept programs more highly classified for longer into their life-cycle and as a result it’s been difficult at times to share with our allies and even with teams within the U.S.”

Perhaps the best exception to this has been the Geosynchronous Space Surveillance Program.

The Air Force unveiled the formerly classified program in 2014, informing friends and foes alike that the U.S. has a neighborhood w atch capability on orbit. The disclosure, however, was arguably as much about deterrence -— “we’re watching you” — as it was about transparency. The Air Force, notably, has said very little about the satellites themselves and what they’re doing. It’s unclear how greater transparency would work for other Air Force and NRO programs. Would it include broad descriptions of capabilities? Planned orbits? The size of the constellation? Budget figures?

“The notion that we should be more transparent about who we are and what we do makes a lot of sense,” NRO Director Betty Sapp, said at the GEOINT 2016 conference in May.

Which brings us back to Spike. What’s that lizard up to?

The Air Force has only said the launch was a success. Amateur satellite sleuths who have spotted  the NROL-61 payload in geosynchronous orbit say it’s a Quasar relay satellite capable of transmitting real-time data from U.S. spy satellites over the poles. The NRO, true to form, hasn’t said a word. But take a closer look at the cartoon of Spike running. Could that be a relay baton in his right hand?