WASHINGTON — The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has opened its first unclassified laboratory in St. Louis, continuing the agency’s push for collaboration with commercial and nontraditional partners.

While NGA has unclassified areas within some of its facilities, Moonshot Labs is unique in that it was designed to be open from the very beginning. Industry leaders in the geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) space have said the classification requirements companies need to meet in order to work with the intelligence community are onerous, even when much of the work is technically at the unclassified level. In response, the agency has expressed interest in conducting more of its work in the unclassified space, and the work-from-home reality of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it to adopt new practices that encouraged more work at the unclassified level. NGA Director Vice Adm. Robert Sharp said last year that many of those new practices would become the norm.

Located in downtown St. Louis, the new Moonshot Labs will encompass 12,000 square feet of shared workspace within the T-REX innovation center, a GEOINT-focused group with ties to NGA. According to a video announcing the endeavor, NGA stated the lab will support software development specializing in geospatial technology.

The laboratory builds off of NGA’s Moonshot plan, a call to action put out by Sharp last year encouraging the agency to maintain America’s edge in GEOINT capabilities.

“Our moonshot is an all-of-enterprise effort to speed up the delivery of the capabilities necessary to deliver that trusted geospatial intelligence our military, policymakers and first-responders require,” said Sharp in a July 23 statement. “All with the speed, accuracy and precision required to project power and defend the United States and our allies.”

NGA believes the new lab will advance that goal by bringing in new partners.

The new space is just the latest of NGA’s ongoing investment in the St. Louis area, where it’s building a new headquarters that will serve as the home of NGA West. Set to open in 2025, the 712,000-square-foot campus will also feature unclassified collaborative workspaces as well as wireless connectivity — the latter of which is largely unheard of in the intelligence community due to security challenges. Sharp said Moonshot Labs is sort of a preview of how the agency wants to work with commercial partners in its future facility.

In addition to the new campus, NGA is working to build the GEOINT capacity of the region. In 2020 the agency launched the NGA Accelerator program, which selects companies to participate in a 13-week program that offers grant funding, investor connections and feedback from the agency. The agency has also partnered with local universities to develop future workers for the GEOINT enterprise.

“St. Louis’ government, industry and academic members have embraced a vision of collaboration to strengthen even further the St. Louis region as a center of geospatial excellence,” said Sharp. “It’s the perfect environment to be launching Moonshot Labs.”

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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