ST. LOUIS – They are three letters that have been all over the news in St. Louis: N-G-A.
A massive new campus for the secretive National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is being built in north St. Louis.
The companion NGA East campus is located in Springfield, Virginia. The new NGA West has been in its current headquarters near the Anheuser-Busch brewery in south St. Louis for 70 years. Most people know very little about it but if there’s one place that makes St. Louis important to the rest of the world, it’s the NGA.
Security is so tight, almost no one gets inside. But FOX 2 did. We found there’s a lot you ought to know.
“Our motto is: know the Earth, show the way, understand the world,” said NGA West Executive Sue Pollmann. “Our job from a national security perspective is to map the world, to know what’s going on in the world, to know where the bad guys are.”
However, there are places they won’t take us on the tour.
“We couldn’t take you into certain mission areas because certain mission areas, we can’t shut them down for you to walk in,” Pollman said.
That was the end of the discussion.
The heart of the NGA mission lies in protecting the homeland.
“The bottom line, (NGA) is a critical piece of national defense,” NGA historian Jim Mohan said.
Still, the role has expanded through the years.
We learned that from the moon landings to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and Haiti earthquake relief, NGA has had the task of mapping things out.
“NGA contributes to what you and I do every day in terms of getting from point A to point B, in terms of the timing on our computers and just how everything works in our society today,” Pollmann said.
The NGA staff opened up about the now declassified past.
“We actually mapped the moon right here from St. Louis,” Mohan said.
Before satellites, the NGA—previously called the Defense Mapping Agency—mapped the moon using telescopes, photos, and slide rules. The staff handcrafted a massive model (8 to 12 times larger than the average man). It was used to simulate moon landings.
The Apollo missions verified NGA maps were accurate within fractions of an inch.
The NGA also mapped Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan with such accuracy that the military team that went there and killed him said it was as if they had already been there.
From the maps, table-top and then life-size models were created to practice the mission.
“We could tell them the thickness of the walls, what the materials were made of, how the rooms were laid out,” Mohan said. “Our job is to provide information so they can train for it, rehearse it, and finally, execute the mission.”
That’s also true when the mission is humanitarian, as in the case of re-mapping earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Everything from airport runways to seaports had changed.
The NGA kept disaster relief teams up to speed.
“…So they had a good perspective on how to bring supplies and equipment in,” Mohan said. “That’s something we do all the time.”
The U.S. Defense Department considers the new $1.7 billion, 700,000 square-foot, NGA West headquarters now under construction in north St. Louis to be critical to continuing the mission.
“We will be able to incorporate new technology at the facility that we’re moving to that we just can’t put in here just because of the age of the facilities here,” Pollman said.
“Our mission has just outgrown this place… We will have nicer, brighter workspaces. We will have windows, which we don’t have today … Whereas here we are in converted warehouse space, at the new site we will be in office buildings that were set up, designed, for our mission from the ‘get-go.’ ”
The staff has grown to more than 3,000 workers who are still headquartered in what is a former military arsenal that dates back to the 1820s.
“We will miss this place. People who’ve worked here understand the historical significance of the old arsenal complex,” Pollmann said.
Virtually everything is off-limits to the public there, as the new headquarters will be.
Construction will be complete in 2024 with a phased “move-in” period that will take an additional year.
“We are responsible for planning the move very carefully so that the move doesn’t break the mission,” Pollmann said.
There can be no downtime in the job of constantly watching and mapping our world.