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Eyes on Earth Episode 103 - EROS 50th: Alumni and Friends, Part 1

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At the USGS EROS 50th anniversary events on August 17-19, 2023, a special effort was made to include alumni who had worked at the center, especially those from the earliest years of EROS’ existence. This episode of Eyes on Earth highlights their stories, with emphasis on EROS’ history and its dedicated employees.




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Sheri Levisay

Hello, and welcome to this alumni edition of Eyes on Earth. I’m Sheri Levisay, your host for this episode. For its 50th anniversary celebration in August, EROS made a special effort to invite former employees to the events, highlighting their importance to the center with a stage dedicated to sharing their perspectives. This podcast, along with the one that follows, brings together excerpts from their talks and impromptu interviews. Today, we’ll listen as alumni talk about the history of the center, with an emphasis on the people who made the EROS mission possible.

We’ll begin with a little pre-EROS history courtesy of Dave Greenlee, who started in 1974 in the Data Analysis Lab. He introduced a video clip of Charles Robinove, one of two USGS dreamers who were instrumental in creating EROS.  

Dave Greenlee

Last month I got a, had an opportunity to go out to Colorado Springs and give a talk at a dedication or a celebration of the life of Chuck Robinove. Chuck died about a year and a half ago. He was a dreamer, and he had big ideas, and he hooked up with a guy named Bill Fischer in the late ‘60s in the mid-’60s, I think. And they began to work with NASA. NASA had this idea that they were going to put a satellite up, and that they would, it would have this return-beam vidicon on it, and ... was all excited about it for mapping, and Fischer and Robinove, the dreamers, said no, this is not going to be like a principal investigator gets the data, and then they share it, and then they write a report. They said, no, this is going to be like a global thing, and it's going to be everybody has access to it. So I'm going to I'm going to show you a movie of Chuck Robinove. It was done in 2008 at the 17th Pecora in Denver.

Charles Robinove

We said what we'd like to do is have a center where we can distribute the data to anybody who wants it. And we said this is going to be a technologically sophisticated place that's going to have a workforce of people who are scientists, engineers, technicians and so on. And we got talking about it. And I said, you know, we've got a problem. Everybody would want this. There's gonna be a battle over who's gonna have this data center, because politically, lots of high-tech jobs is a good thing to have. So I said what we need is some criteria, some very specific technical criteria that nobody can argue with about where this data center should be. So we said one, it has to be somewhere in the country where we can locate an antenna where we can receive data downloaded from the satellite anytime it's over North America. that is going to narrow down the area where it's going to be within that area. We have to have a place that is seismically quiet because we're going to operate machinery that can be harmed by seismic activity. It has to have a good water supply, it has to have the support of the community, and second, it has to be in an area where you can get the downlink from the satellite. Well, we had RCA do a study and they drew a circle in the center of the country and said this is where it should be. That circle included four major towns, Sioux Falls, Sioux City, Lincoln and Omaha. Lincoln was out almost immediately. when we found out that its major television station broadcast on a frequency that was a harmonic of the downlink frequency. That left Sioux Falls, Sioux City and Omaha. The Sioux Falls people said, “This is a great opportunity,” and they started things moving and came to us, and we worked with them, and it ended up there. Why? One, they put political pressure to bear through Senator [Karl] Mundt. And they said, how much land do you need? We said we'd like a half-section, 320 acres. They said we'll get it for you. The Sioux Falls economic development commission went out and took options to buy 106 half-sections of land and said, “Take your choice.” We very quickly narrowed it down to six pieces of land. The people of Sioux Falls had a very interesting take on having the data center there. They said one, it's new. Two, it's high-tech. Three, it's nonpolluting. And four, you're talking about maybe eventually having about 350 people there. So the Sioux Falls people bought that half-section of land, gave it to the government and we built the EROS Data center on a lease-purchase arrangement. It was a win-win situation for everyone.


Today, Tom Earley is the mayor of Dell Rapids, South Dakota—for the second time! But back in March 1972, Earley was a new EROS employee with unique skills and a unique connection to Landsat 1.

Tom Earley

The Downtown Office they started in September of 1971 and I started there in March of 1972. We flew up and we were in the taxi and this taxi driver was talking all about this EROS thing, and oh my God, it sounded like, you know, gonna be thousands of people. And ohh my, you know, it's just on and on. So after this we moved, moved up and checked it out and and found out where they were, and went down and visited with Bill Campbell. He was in charge of the data management, that side of things, operations, I guess.  And so we visited, and once he found out that I knew what a role of 9 ½-inch aerial photography was all about, since when I was in the Air Force, I was a photo interpreter. So I started work there in March. And the big thing was handling all the film, the archives, and then we started getting in film from NASA, from their programs. The U2 stuff, I think they had a RB-57 maybe that flew, whatever. And over the and all the time, downtown, the holdings from the other Department of Interior, BLM, et cetera. At the Downtown Office, we referred to this place as “The Site”: We were the EROS Data Center; this is just “The Site.” They launched the first satellite on my birthday in July, on July 23, 1972, and that was, everybody that was anybody went to California to watch, to watch that happen. And I think we later in the day we got a phone call that, yeah, it went up and it's, we think it's working, so. The first imagery that they captured was of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and they were going to make these 40-inch prints, and I got asked to hand-carry these 40-inch prints back to Washington. OK, that sounds OK. Well, it took them forever to make the prints because the film, the it was so dense it took like 45 minutes to expose to make a print, but eventually they got it done. Well, with ERTS-1 then, when the first satellite, the imagery was that came down, it was converted into film imagery and then that film was sent out to EROS. And the way they did that at the time, Ozark Airlines had a flight, direct flight from Washington to Sioux Falls. So every day, Rollie Nelson and I would take our little, our brown bag lunch and get in the old pickup and drive out to the airport, and you'd walk in, walk back into the freight area, and Russ Emmons was the station manager for Ozark. So we got to know him real well. And we just sit in there and the, I think it came in around 12:30 or something like that, and then pretty soon the guy walked in with a bag, and “Here's your film.” And that's how the film got to Sioux Falls. And then we take it back and then we get ingested in the system.


Charles Luden started work at EROS in 1973, extracting silver from the photochemicals and working with various other aspects of the film lab until it was dismantled in 2004. Before his retirement in 2008, he helped clean and scan in archived aerial photography. We chatted about his experiences at the 50th anniversary celebration.

Charles Luden

I miss not seeing that stuff. It's just way beyond what you get on Google Earth. I'm used to looking at nice stuff, you know, but those aerial photographs, some of them were taken from 10- to 20,000 feet depending on the mission back to the ‘40s. And I remember some beautiful images over Montana, Wyoming in the mountains, with the steam engines going through tunnels, and one had one going into one coming out over a trestle bridge, just beautiful frames, you know. I got one where they did, they were building Disneyland, and you can see the dump trucks built, they were building the castle. You know, inDisneyland; was that 1954 probably?


I think that sounds right, for sure, yeah.


In that time frame, yeah, wow. I got to know the whole country. When we first year or two of the photo lab, we'd had to, it was thought it was a clean room. We had to wear these outfits, you know. And then we had to walk through an air shower. And we had these two of them, two, two different ones, one into the photo lab itself and one into the processing area. We had to come up with a way—the air shower was to blow dust off your clothes. Because they thought that dust was going to be a problem and then they had to come up with a way of got involved with the programming of this thing that would, if you open this door and you push this door, there's a switch on the floor that tells you there's a person there, and then if this door opens and this door closes, you want to get a shower going in but not going out, and they finally had to put a manual switch in it because they tried to do it automatically and it just, it didn't work. But anyway, it was, that was kind of funny. And there were tacky mats on the floor and they had to change the tacky mats a couple times a day because they’d take them. And then they realize it wasn't really making any difference in the photographs anyway because it was overkill and it wasn't that dirty anyhow, so.


For those who worked at EROS in the earliest years, the January 10, 1975, blizzard has achieved legendary status—for good reason. More than 30 people were stuck at the center until January 12, which was Super Bowl Sunday. Fortunately, there was a TV at the center. Tom Earley and Ron Beck, a longtime public information specialist at EROS, share their stories about the blizzard.


You remember the famous 1975 blizzard, when they kept being told you better get the people out of here, you better get them outta here, you know? And on and on and on. And so I was one of the people who got to spend the weekend out here and Betty Machmiller and myself, we took the cafeteria over and cooking, and it was a lot of fun.

Ron Beck

Tom Earley talked about the snow, the blizzard, the first winter? I was in the last car to leave because, and actually Tom said it wrong: Our center, wanted to shut down, but they called Reston. "Oh, you can't shut down. What's a little snow?” “A lot of snow is coming.” Finally, Watkins got on the phone and said, “We gotta shut it down.” And so they shut it down. And most of, there were about 300 people working here at the time. Before the caravan looked like a herd of stampeding turtles leaving, and they got around the curve and the car right behind me, right up by the cemetery, went sideways, blocked everybody behind it. So like 40 people spent the weekend out here.


Both Beck and Earley have an unmistakable affection for EROS and its value for Sioux Falls.


I'm just proud to have been part of it. Had a good time with it. There were low moments for sure over the years, but a wonderful experience. And the message I try to convey is that by going global, we brought the whole global science community into looking at the Earth, and that, to me, that's an important message.


I think EROS has been a great resource for this whole region and in terms of bringing people who grew up here and bringing, you know, their—I know in the ‘80s and ‘90s a lot of the computer science people we would hire that the one reason that came back is because they had family here, and we had jobs, and we were paying well. And that worked out.


Rhonda Watkins was among the first women at EROS, starting at the Downtown Office and then moving out to the center. She flew in from Florida to attend the 50th anniversary celebration.

Rhonda Watkins

I was downtown. I was a secretary for a while, and then I was more administration, budget and HR, not science oriented. It was wonderful because I came out of college. It was my first job and it was like exciting because EROS was like a big deal for Sioux Falls, and then so I worked in admin, budget, HR, whatever, like they say, everybody stepped up, whatever you needed to do. So this is great coming back. I live in Florida now, so ...


Did you make a trip up here just for this?


Well, I grew up here. My kids went to school here. So I came back, I'm going to visit my high school friends on tomorrow and Monday and fly back on Tuesday. But yeah, I wanted to come to this. It was a good reason to come back.


Probably the most consistent theme alumni voiced was the dedication of and connection to their coworkers. Earley offered an especially poignant example.


It was a fun time, and I greatly enjoyed it and the people we had down there were just great to work with, and honestly that they would do anything that you needed to have them do. You know, I think any organization, any business, anything that's a start-up, in those early days is probably the most fun. I want to tell you a little story about somebody, and I think her actions certainly attest to the people we had here at EROS and how much of a caring group we were, and they were. Most of you might probably remember, Becky Deno, Becky Rollinger Deno. And in her later years, she dealt with cancer for a long time, long time. And she was off of work for quite a while, and one day I get a phone call. She says, “Can I come out this afternoon?” “Sure. Sure. OK.” So she came out, and I think she maybe first went to the customer service area and visited with people, and then she came down to see me. And she walks in the office, and she says “I came out to say goodbye to everybody.” She says “I'm going into hospice tomorrow.” She loved this place so much that she came out to say goodbye to people, and that just tells you if she felt that way about people, the kind of people that we have here. And it continues.


Part of EROS’ legacy is its strong connections to universities. So even though he’s not an alumnus, Chris McGinty, executive director of AmericaView, was invited to speak at the alumni stage. He introduced Mary O’Neill, who began remote sensing work with South Dakota State University even before EROS started at its downtown office.

Chris McGinty

I believe if Clarence King and John Wesley Powell could see how USGS has evolved since it was founded in March of 1879, they would be amazed at the innovation, science and discovery that has occurred over the last 144 years, and I think that's a testament to the strength of the USGS and all they've done. And truly how much that's happened over the last 50 years. The full 50 years of that innovation, science and discoveries happened right here at EROS. So OhioView was established as a consortium of universities in Ohio that that would receive funding to conduct novel research using Landsat data. The overall goal is to facilitate wider use of Landsat data and embed the Landsat data and education at the collegiate and secondary education levels. So the program was a resounding success and was not just noticed by USGS but was also noticed by congressional members as well. Congress directed the USGS to roll out a larger national program that would mimic OhioView, and the idea of AmericaView was born. In 2003, AmericanView spun out of USGS as a nonprofit educational organization with 10 charter members, South DakotaView being one of those members, and the charge of AmericaView was to advance Earth observation education, remote sensing science, applied research, workforce development, technology transfer and community outreach, some of which we got to do today. Each StateView member hosted by a local university, their charges develop in-state networks, which identify important issues that can be addressed or supported by remote sensing, Earth observation and geospatial data, especially the Landsat archive and value-added data that is meticulously produced right here at EROS. The national network was also directed to collect user requirements, data, successes, opportunities for data improvement and future value-added data opportunities to help educate decision makers regarding Landsat and EROS programs. AmericanView StateView members each do incredible work. South DakotaView and MontanaView worked with Native American students to understand and use remotely since data. Dr. Bruce Miller, who is the current director of South DakotaView, and Mary O'Neill, who's the former director of South DakotaView, have worked extensively with K-12 teachers to integrate remote sensing into their curriculum.

Mary O’Neill

Mostly what I'm going to talk about today is the relationship that we've had at South Dakota State University, 50 miles up the road in Brookings, with EROS over the years. And like it says there, it's a 50-year relationship, but really it's a 50-plus-year relationship. Probably most of you know about the Remote Sensing Institute; anyone here that's never heard of the Remote Sensing Institute? No. OK, good. The Remote Sensing Institute was established on July or January 1, 1969, with Victor Meyers as director. He came here from, he came to Brookings from Weslaco, TX. So you can imagine what a shock it was for him to come on January 1 when it was probably below 0 and start his job. EROS had a, [coughs] excuse me, had a home in downtown Sioux Falls and that opened its doors on September 28, 1971. And I remember going to that location not in 1971, but in 1972, shortly after the first Landsat or ERTS was launched. I came here with Dr. Fred Waltz, and we watched some of the very first Landsat imagery roll off the press at that location, so you know at that time I was fresh out of SDSU with my bachelor's degree. And I'm sure I didn't realize the significance of what I was seeing, but it was pretty cool, and it's even more cool now, 50 years later. So one of the first things I remember about EROS and SDSU working together is going to the launch of Landsat 1, or ERTS. Forty-nine years later, I was at the launch along with other members of the AmericanView delegation, we all had the privilege of watching Landsat 9 being launched. So a lot of those programs started at SDSU and then transferred here to EROS, along with the folks that came here to work. By the way, the Remote Sensing Institute closed down in 1986, and so a lot of the folks that were working for RSI, some were absorbed on SDSU campus, that's what happened to me, and others, a lot of them came here to EROS to work.


John Faundeen, who retired in 2019 as archivist, kicked off the afternoon session of the alumni stage by reading a note from retired geologist Charlie Trautwein about how working at EROS was an education in and of itself.  

John Faundeen

Having come on board in 1975, it was the multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers and technicians that had a lot of different perspectives on potentially new applications of satellite-based multispectral remote sensing devices that held my interest and attention. In my early years at the center, Glenn Landis often came down to the branch with the bunch of rejected 40×40-inch false color composite Landsat images from the photo lab. Then he'd call out to us to our branch conference room, lay them out on the table and ask all of us “What do you see?” Then he waited until each one of us explained what we interpreted, what was where and why. He wouldn't leave until each of us told him and each other what we saw on each print. After he retired, I asked him about those sessions, and he only said “You won't learn much if you don't teach each other.” Coupled with all the new Landsats and many other orbiting systems and data-processing technologies that were coming to the markets in the late ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and ever since, we did and still do have a lot to learn about what's going on under the sensors. That trusted imagery is still on the table, whether it's your TV, mainframe, laptop, cell phone, wristwatch or whatever is in front of your nose. And you are all teaching each other where on Earth we've been, where we are and where we're going.


We’ll close out this podcast with some excerpts from Frank Kelly’s remarks. Kelly was EROS director from December 2011 through May 2018. At the 50th anniversary events on August 19, he praised the passion, teamwork, vision and service of the people at EROS.

Frank Kelly

My name is Frank Kelly. I was director here from the end of 2011 up until the middle of 2018. The people here at EROS, as you will find out, are very passionate in the work they do, and that's part of what makes this such a special place, and it's a real privilege to have been the director here, and an important aspect that I want to emphasize here is also: This is a team of government employees and contractors, and it's always been that way here at EROS, with more contractor personnel than government personnel, and it's been a long-standing and great relationship with the contractor community to be able to have EROS the way it is. And one of the, one of the more fun things was the handover of Landsat 8. I actually got to put my signature on a document that turned over Landsat 8 to the USGS, so I own that satellite. But I think it's important to focus on the visitors and the colleagues, when they came here to let them know that the people is what made this place work. Yes, the technology is great. And yes, the archive is great. But it was the people who have made this place work. The government and contractors and those families who are here in support of those people. This is what I'd like to, I’d kind of like to leave you with: EROS is first, foremost and always a collection of those serving the public on the front lines dedicated to understanding a changing Earth. The people and teams here are trusted partners working across government, academia, private sector and internationally to advance science, technology and societal benefits of multi-mission remote sensing products and services, and the people here are subject matter experts. They're innovators in a pioneering service organization and responsive to customer needs. And the team at EROS demonstrates leadership as experts to achieve critical advances in data, services, assessments needed to understand and manage environmental change, and this is to me the important part: At its core, EROS is a team of world-class researchers, computer experts, engineers, administrators, facilities experts, service and industry leaders, and guardians of our security and safety all working together to turn global data into world-class science.


Thank you to all the alumni who offered their perspectives on the five decades of EROS history and people. And thank you to the listeners. Check out our EROS Facebook and Twitter pages to watch for our newest episodes, and you can also subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts.

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