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Fifty years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) brought people together to work in a new government facility surrounded by South Dakota farm fields. The mission: act as stewards for land remote sensing imagery, especially the scenes collected by the fledgling Landsat satellite, and help people around the world make sense of it to benefit themselves and the planet.

A half-century later, as past and present employees at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center near Sioux Falls celebrated the milestone, the mission is being fulfilled in ways the original leaders and staff couldn’t imagine.

Images from events during the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center's 50th anniversary celebration, held August 18-19, 2023, at EROS.

The Landsat Program currently has its eighth and ninth satellites orbiting together to provide new views of all land surfaces on Earth every eight days, sending back imagery with far more sophistication and detail than ever before. EROS serves as the primary Landsat ground station, while operating the satellites out of Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. At the time of the building dedication ceremony on August 7, 1973, 70 employees worked at EROS. At the time of the EROS rededication ceremony on August 18, 2023, EROS employed 10 times that many, most in South Dakota and the rest at Goddard.

The following day, many of the employees attended 50th anniversary festivities open to their friends and families. A crowd of more than 500, which also included alumni, USGS leadership and other special guests, was treated to a display of what EROS has accomplished and strives for in the future, through building tours, displays in the atrium and hallways, videos, a poster session outlining many current projects led by scientists at EROS, scientist and alumni talks, and a Celebration Ceremony.

A man looks at a wall containing maps of different states and some text
The Hall of States, shown here August 19, 2023, during the 50th anniversary celebration at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center, displays Landsat 7 mosaic images of each state in the United States. 

The atmosphere conveyed a vibrancy and passion for the mission and work of EROS, and certainly a sense of the spirit that had led many past employees and leaders down the same walkways where people at the anniversary chatted, maneuvered strollers and leisurely took in imagery and exhibits.

It’s a spirit that reminds us that working for the good of the planet is noble and powerful work—and has been for 50 years.

‘Ripple Effect of Scientific Discovery’

Employees, government leaders, Sioux Falls leaders and industry colleagues—from as far away as Australia—gathered in the EROS auditorium and online for a midday Friday rededication ceremony with Master of Ceremonies (MC) and EROS Chief of Staff Tim Glynn, amid USGS science meetings. The rededication looked back at significant moments in EROS’ history and ahead to future directions for the Center.

The founding story of EROS, and how a Space Age facility came to reside in an agriculturally focused state like South Dakota, has a compelling amount of drama and grit, much like the evolution of EROS throughout the years. So, gratitude was expressed more than once during the week for the passion of South Dakota congressional delegates and the ingenuity of Sioux Falls leadership in making the case for locating the Landsat archive in South Dakota, as well as fundraising to buy the land from two farm families and build the facility to lease back to the government for purchase over 20 years.

Black and white photo of two men shaking hands with other men standing in the background
Undersecretary of the Interior William Pecora (front right) arrives for Industrial Development Week in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, an event to raise funding for the not-yet-built Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center. Front, from left: Al Schock, Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Schirmer, Congressman Ben Reifel and Pecora. Back, from left: Bob Elmen, Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce President Louis Warren, unknown (between Reifel and Pecora), Dave Stenseth, Merlyn Veren.

“The city’s extraordinary efforts to bring EROS to South Dakota created a ripple effect of scientific discovery that started in Sioux Falls and spread around the world with efforts for monitoring fires, floods and famines, as well as human activity ranging from mining to agriculture. EROS’ observing and recording of land changes over time is a powerful tool that reaches into the past, helps to explain the present and helps to manage the future,” said Kevin Gallagher, USGS Associate Director of Core Science Systems Mission Area, in delivering remarks from USGS Director David Applegate in his absence because of a travel delay.

EROS Center Director Pete Doucette, in opening the ceremony, described the intent of the rededication. “It’s a renewal of our commitment to what we do and to where we’re going,” he said.

It’s a fitting time in EROS history, then, to be working toward the next generation of Landsat, which will look quite different than its currently orbiting sibling satellites. As speakers and displays explained, Landsat Next is planned to launch in 2030 with three smaller satellites orbiting to provide a closer look and more frequent imagery with added detail. Doucette, showing a 1:20 scale model of Landsat 8 and essentially its twin, Landsat 9, said, “Landsat 9 probably marks the end of an era of that size of a satellite.”

Interestingly, Doucette recalled the failure of Landsat 6 to achieve orbit as a reminder of the risks that are part of the business. He remarked, “We shouldn’t fear failure, but rather see it as an opportunity to learn.”

Doucette also challenged employees to be open and adaptable to new technologies in the future, even as he encouraged them to take pride in the “great American stories” of Landsat and EROS.


1966-1979: How Sioux Falls Ingenuity Secured the Center

1966-1979: How Sioux Falls Ingenuity Secured the Center

1980-1999: Through Uncertainty to a Firm Footing

1980-1999: Through Uncertainty to a Firm Footing

2000-2023: Data and Science Surge

2000-2023: Data and Science Surge

Impact Around the World and Right at Home

The rededication ceremony also included a prerecorded message from Annalise Blum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Water and Science for the Department of the Interior, with a summary of some of the impressive ways Landsat and EROS have helped meet global disaster-related imagery and science research needs.

“In a world where extreme events are becoming more and more prevalent, the work you all do will provide needed science to document these changes and help our country move forward with action that meets the moment,” Blum said.

“EROS provided the model for how to continuously improve and provide the best possible products and update them. It's an area that the U.S. can be very proud of in terms of international leadership,” Boston University remote sensing expert Curtis Woodcock said afterward. Woodcock has long worked with people at EROS as part of Landsat Science Teams.

A room of people seated at tables looking at a screen in front while a woman stands at a podium
Jesslyn Brown, a research geographer with the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center, delivers a science talk during the 50th anniversary celebration for EROS on August 19, 2023.

The ceremony also included plenty of humor throughout—scientists and engineers definitely know how to laugh—including a returning crowd favorite from the 2022 Landsat 9 ceremony transitioning the satellite from NASA to USGS control.

Sioux Falls Mayor Paul Tenhaken—a self-described “colorblind graphic designer by background”—said in his portion of the ceremony, “I get to speak to a lot of different groups, a lot of different organizations, a lot of different events, and I honestly never feel dumber than when I’m with the people of EROS.”

“I have a ton of respect and admiration for the work the scientists, the engineers and all the work that goes into the Landsat program,” he said. “It's very evident that the work that the Landsat program is doing is saving lives and having a tremendous impact on our entire world.”

EROS, Tenhaken said, is “a place that's out of sight of Sioux Falls, but not out of mind. And I hope you know that and feel that and recognize that the work you're doing out here is very much realized, not only from an economic impact standpoint, but we lift up EROS when we're talking with other companies, when we're talking with other organizations,” and they’re asking about technology and white collar high-paying work in the region.

“EROS is usually one of the first ones that we'll talk about,” Tenhaken said.

Time Capsule Treasures

Kristi Kline, Branch Chief for New Missions at EROS, had the honor of opening the time capsule that, with a ribbon cutting, helped conclude the ceremony. The large black trunk is a living time capsule, she explained, that contains elements of the past and gains new treasures at anniversary ceremonies.

two people presenting a poster
While USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center Director Pete Doucette tells the audience a little about the 10th anniversary festivities at EROS during the August 18, 2023, rededication ceremony, EROS Branch Chief for New Missions Kristi Kline holds up a 10th anniversary poster from the time capsule and prepares to add a 50th anniversary poster.

To the capsule, Kline first added “one of my favorite things”—a book from about 1995 titled “What’s on the Internet?” with a spine maybe just an inch thick. She reminisced that at that time, she connected to the internet via a modem hooked up through her phone line. “Now imagine trying to put this book together today,” she challenged the audience.

Kline called for help with the next items. She pulled out a newspaper ad for the 1973 EROS dedication ceremony, and Kevin Gallagher helped her add a corresponding program for the 50th anniversary Celebration Ceremony the following day.

Mayor Tenhaken helped describe a 1999 calendar showing aerial images of Sioux Falls stored at EROS, ranging from 1937 to 1997, and they added a Landsat 9 satellite image of Sioux Falls captured just a day earlier, on August 17, 2023. “How cool is that?” Tenhaken said, before quipping, in an inside joke for Sioux Falls area folks, “Not a pothole in sight.”

Tim Newman, Program Coordinator for the National Land Imaging Program that oversees the Landsat Program, helped showcase the Landsat 8 paper model removed from the capsule, saying, “I actually tried to make one of those once. I’m an engineer, and I don’t think I ever finished it.” A Landsat 9 USGS NASA mission patch went back in with the model.

Pete Doucette helped with the last items in the ceremony, pulling out a poster from the 10th anniversary of EROS that was held September 18-24, 1983. “A weeklong celebration. So we’ve been downsizing,” Doucette joked. “And I thought this celebration took a lot of planning.” Added back with that poster was a newly printed 50th anniversary poster.

Bustling Scene with Family and Friends

The Saturday festivities had a family-friendly flair filled with lively chattering. The lobby bustled with visitors, especially when tours with room for 75 were about to start on the hour. Small groups clustered in hallways here and there, while attentive listeners sat in on science talks and EROS videos. Families with younger kids checked out the range of activities and swag offered by AmericaView in the EROS library, keeping busy making kites and collages and exploring the room with thermal cameras.

Alumni presentations and the midday ceremony were hosted beneath a large, rectangular white tent in front of the original part of the building before temperatures in the 90s moved the afternoon alumni presentations into the welcome air conditioning inside.

People putting together a giant puzzle
Large floor puzzles of Sioux Falls and Denver help entertain guests during the 50th anniversary event August 19, 2023.

All the while, staff from IT, facilities, communications, and the cafeteria, along with employee volunteers and Center leadership, helped keep the festivities moving along.

Tim Glynn reprised his MC role for the Celebration Ceremony, and Pete Doucette welcomed the crowd seated in rows of white wooden chairs.

Doucette went on to describe the basics of Landsat satellites and the organization of EROS. He also emphasized what has become an important issue to him—pulling in the scientists and engineers needed to carry EROS forward into the future.

“It’s really quite a diversity of talent that we do attract, and it’s getting difficult because we’re competing with a lot of industry,” Doucette said, in skills that include remote sensing, geology, geography, landscape ecology, environmental science, data management and artificial intelligence, in addition to civil, electrical, computer, mechanical, systems and aerospace engineering.

“These are the kinds of skills we're looking for in the next generation of folks coming out of our local universities,” Doucette said.

USGS Director David Applegate, who did arrive in time for Saturday’s ceremony, walked guests through the origin of EROS and the towering significance of the 2008 USGS open data policy, which opened the Landsat archive at EROS at no cost to the world.

“At the USGS, our whole mission is about delivering actionable information that can be put to use to address difficult environmental, resource and public safety challenges, and that is what Landsat and EROS is all about,” Applegate said.

two men shovel dirt on a potted plant
On August 19, 2023, USGS Director David Applegate and USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center Director Pete Doucette use golden shovels that have been used at other EROS dedication events to help dedicate a red oak tree, a long-living species, to be planted at EROS as a symbolic gesture to its future beyond 50 years.

“To a generation of scientists who will be picking up the torch when our time has come to lay it down, I'm encouraged and excited about what the future holds for EROS and the USGS in the next decades,” he said after describing the potential of Landsat Next.

Tribute to Dedication of the People of EROS

Tyler Tordsen, a staff member for South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds, delivered congratulations to EROS for the milestone, reflecting on the significance of its origins.

Then, David Brostuen, Director of the National Geospatial Directorate overseeing EROS and the USGS National Geospatial Technical Operations Center (NGTOC), gave the audience a glimpse of what artificial intelligence—specifically, ChatGPT—might say about EROS if writing a speech for this occasion.

The artificially written speech provided a laugh to an audience that knew EROS was not, in fact, a small spacecraft exploring the universe but instead a facility in South Dakota focused on planet Earth. However, Brostuen thought that some of the phrases used actually did aptly describe the people and work of EROS: “driven by the boundless human spirit of curiosity and the relentless pursuit of knowledge.”

“ChatGPT made some fatal errors but, in some ways, also got them right,” Brostuen added. “While EROS is not a satellite, I could argue that EROS is not a center. EROS is a people that have dedicated their lives to doing what it takes to understanding our planet Earth and the life it sustains.”

Tim Newman, the final speaker, works for the USGS in Reston, Virginia, trying to sustain and build support for the Landsat Program. But he has connected continuously with the people at EROS since his career there began about 15 years ago.  

“I love being here,” he said while explaining to the audience why he felt honored to speak.

A man holds a microphone while a woman holds a paper model of a satellite with an American flag in the background
Tim Newman, Program Coordinator for the USGS National Land Imaging Program, helps Kristi Kline, Branch Chief for New Missions at EROS, review items in the EROS time capsule, including a Landsat 8 satellite paper model, at the rededication ceremony August 18, 2023, during the EROS 50th anniversary festivities.

“My first few trips here, it really became obvious that it's not the satellites that are the best part of EROS, it's the people. It's a fabulous building. There's a lot of great systems, there's a lot of great data and the satellites themselves, but it's the people,” Newman elaborated. “It's the people that have worked here with a passion for 50 years, and it's generations of people. You go back in time, there are people that were here at the very beginning that stayed here, and stayed here as long as they could because they loved it. How great is it to have a job where you go to work and you love it? You love what you do. You see the difference every day. So, satellites are cool, as I've always said, but it's the people that matter.”

A Fondness for EROS

Later, Newman, a Wisconsin native who lived in different places during his Air Force service, described his fondness for his trips to EROS, which average once a month. “It was so refreshing to come back to Sioux Falls as a Midwestern city and talk to people that would say hi to you on the sidewalk—wherever you went. In this building, at EROS, wherever I would walk, somebody would say hi to me,” Newman said. “That’s always been the neat part about coming back to EROS. It's kind of like going home again for me.”

That feeling of fondness for EROS, among employees but also among people outside of EROS who work closely with them, seems easy to come across. The people share a bond in knowing what EROS does for the world, and it feels special to have some sort of role in that greater mission.

During the 50th anniversary, a lot of them welcomed the chance to bring their families and friends to work and show firsthand what they do and why it matters.

They, and those in whose footsteps they followed, make up the EROS legacy.

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