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Eyes on Earth Episode 104 – EROS 50th: Alumni and Friends, Part 2

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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 is the second to highlight their stories, with emphasis on science, technology, and EROS’ international outlook.




Public Domain.


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, like the previous one, brings together excerpts from their talks as well as impromptu interviews. Today, we’ll listen as alumni and others talk about the science and technology that made the EROS mission possible. But the podcast also features the worldwide outlook and benefits to society from the era of Earth observation that began with Landsat 1’s launch.  

To begin, we’ll listen to a clip from a 2008 interview with Virginia Norwood and John DeNoyer that was shared with the alumni stage audience. Norwood, known as the Mother of Landsat for her work on the Multi-Spectral Scanner [MSS] that proved to be such a success on Landsat 1, or ERTS-1, died on March 26 this year at the age of 96. John DeNoyer was the first director of the EROS program, operating from the Washington, D.C., office. He died in 2016.

Virginia Norwood

So to propose a scanner for this met with quite a bit of skepticism, and we got, as you may know, we had quite a few stages in the, in the scanner itself. Originally, we were going to do a sinusoidal motion and then have to put up with the variability that that entailed, and then we had the sawtooth idea, and to simplify that as much as possible we decided to bang the mirror back and forth so that between bangs it, the velocity, the angular velocity would be constant, and then it would return, and we couldn't use the return at that time for quite a few reasons, so we used the return intervals for calibration lamps, and later on they got the bright idea of looking at the sun once in orbit. So that stabilized the lamp calibrators. And we were able, because the detectors were getting better and all that we were able to eke out the signal noise we needed. Well, we thought that we could probably have a spacecraft that could lift the Thematic Mapper and then as time grew, as the spacecraft was looked into more and more, they were sharing a lot of other sensors at that time, too, and so we were limited to 60 pounds, and that's for the scanner itself and the data processing. And so that just meant that we had to go back to a 9-inch aperture. And then you didn't have enough collection to support any finer cuts on the spectral bands. The users, of course, had been accustomed to something that looked like a spectrometer, it was so fine grained. And so we had to force them into accepting the four pretty broad bands. And when they thought about it more and more, they said, yeah, I think that would be useful to us. So it was, it was a compromise on mass, I'd say, primarily.

John DeNoyer

It was compromised on mass for several reasons. The first Landsat also carried the Return Beam Vidicons, and the reason for carrying them, they were rather heavy item themselves.


And there were three of them.


There were three of them. The reason for having them was that we were sure they would have geometric fidelity, and we were not sure that the MSS would really have map quality, but geometric fidelity, so it was.


O, ye of little faith!


It was a—I’ll get to that in a moment. But it turned out that the MSS did have very good geometric fidelity, and also it was, it was possible to register, fix the different colors in the pixel, different bands in the pixels for each pixel, where you couldn't do that with Return Beam Vidicon and the Return Beam Vidicon had reticules on it and or registering, and so it was quite a different thing, as there was a lot of controversy about which was going to be better before the launch. And I can't help but remember Bill Pecora at one of the congressional hearings was asked which he preferred, the Return Beam Vidicons or the Multi-Spectral Scanner. He sat back, and stretched it a little bit, and said “Well, it's like beer. There's good beer and there's better beer, but there's no bad beer.”


So, Virginia, another aspect and one of the differences between the RBV and the MSS was that RBV was analog, and MSS was digital, which was cutting edge. I mean, we hadn't found a digital scanner, was it, so was it the very nature of the fact that it was a scanner, that it needed to be digital, or can you speak to that, that aspect?


No, it was just that that was the easier way to keep the pixels apart and also …


And put them back together again.


And put them back.


The International Remote Sensing Workshops introduced a worldwide audience to the value of Landsat imagery. Ron Beck, who worked in communications for EROS for decades, shares a few stories of those training sessions, both in South Dakota and abroad.

Ron Beck

Probably the best time I had professionally was working in the international program. We set up international training. [Former directors Al] Watkins and [Glen] Landis set it up, and Don Lauer and Gene Thorley. And we would offer twice-a-year training courses for the international scientists. They would come from other countries. The other countries paid their tuition, paid their expenses, and they were here in Sioux Falls for about a month. That was an important part; we did training for roughly 850 scientists from around from over a hundred countries. So we spread the word about the value of remote sensing, and that proved to be critical. Mostly satellite data, because the foreign scientists typically didn't have access to aerial photography even in their own countries, so this was important that we, we preached ERTS or Landsat data to them, and we'd spend a week going over the principles and applications and exercises and so on in the classroom. That was, that was important that we do that. Workshops in Sioux Falls included a weekly field trip because it was our intention, and the scientists and the educators, two of whom are here, Dr. [Bill] Draeger and Don Orr, said “We're not going to just teach in the classroom, we're going to go out and field check things, because that's what scientists do.” South Dakota was a perfect test case because eastern South Dakota—glaciated deposits; western South Dakota—deposits from ancient seabeds; and then the Black Hills, and the Badlands—near arid environment in the Badlands; and then the mountainous region of the Black Hills. We could touch on four major geologic structures in our training, and that worked well for the students. We had volunteers in the community who had host dinners for the international students so they could learn more about other countries, and the other countries could learn more about life in Sioux Falls. And as a byproduct, a large portion of the Sioux Falls community learned more about what we do out here. The real gold mine though, in my mind, was what we did in African states and are still doing in African states, where we applied the technology to various resource management problems in the African countries, and Don Moore and Gray Tappan led the charge on that one. Why do this? Teach people to independently protect their natural resources, and that that was our objective. Recently, they've done land cover studies, locust control studies, the expansion of the Sahel region. What was significant about the international training, in my mind, was we brought the attention of Landsat to the global science community and the value of global Earth observations. Instead of an isolated training program out of Sioux Falls, we expanded it to a global system, and many countries have their own satellites up subsequently to that, to doing exactly the same thing we're doing.


Later, in an interview standing outside in the wind, Beck gave more detail about a particularly eventful training trip abroad: A visit to Iran in 1978.


 The Iranians took us out for dinner. And they said at the end of it, they said, Ron, where do you want to go? And I said I don’t want to go to the Hilton Hotel. I want to go to an Iranian restaurant, OK? And they said the place to go, and they took us to a place where in a corner there was a guy weaving rugs, which were very important to Iran's economy. Had a nice dinner, fabulous, strictly Iranian food. [Don] Orr and I got back to the hotel next morning. We were going to fly out to Greece, meet our wives in Athens. I picked up the Iranian newspaper. That restaurant had been blown up. We missed it by 24 hours.


That makes your heart race just to hear about it.


And yeah, and of course, we lost all touch with our counterparts in Iran shortly after that because they, they didn't dare communicate with Americans.


In its five decades, EROS has frequently provided imagery and data to help with disaster response. Ron Risty, who started at EROS in 1973, was disaster response coordinator during part of his 40-plus-year career at the center. At the anniversary event, he talked about several of those historic moments, starting with the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl.

Ron Risty

I remember the very first activity that I got involved with, with emergency operations and it was the Chernobyl nuclear accident. And there was an individual that was here from the CIA, and he happened to be here visiting the center that day, and he got a telephone call. And of course, he had to go take it in the SCIF [sensitive compartmented information facility]. And at that time, we didn't have a SCIF, so he just went to a closed door, and it turned out, found out that the Chernobyl acts a reactor #4 had, had blown up. And so it turned out how lucky we were that the Landsat program satellite went over that particular day and was able to capture the image of the shutdown, that they had to, had turned it off. So on that Friday, following Friday, KELOLAND News, Al Watkins contacted KELOLAND News. They backed up the white truck to the building out here. And of course, the Soviet Union at the time declined that there was any type of a nuclear reactor that they had taken, had gone off. But when we were able to show the picture, Al Watkins to Dan Rather on CBS News at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, it was pretty obvious that it had all been shut down. The SAST [Scientific Assessment and Strategy Team] project, which was enormous, that happened in the course in the spring of 1993 and lasted until the fall of ’93 and now which is, you know, which is the main conference room, that was, we brought in, I think it was like seven different federal agencies. There's like 20 different people that came from around the country. And they were here during that time period, and we supported the SAST project, which was the Great Flood of the, on the Mississippi River, everything south of Sioux City, all the way down through Missouri River and all the way through the St. Louis confines down the Mississippi River. And I remember taking that, having the opportunity to go down, we got on a barge in St. Louis and went downriver about 20 miles. And we got out and, they walked up the bank, and they had shovels with them, and they were shoveling at least 6 feet down, and we never got to the bottom of the sand that was washed up on the, on the shore of the agricultural land. And so later on, that next spring, I was flying down to New Orleans for a presentation, and we flew over St. Louis. And that land that they were, that the farmers were concerned about because the federal government didn't do anything with the, with the sand that, because it stretched for miles, and it's, and so the farmers, what they did is they windrowed, and would windrow the sand, and the sand would be 20 feet high, and it would be just as long as you could see as you're flying over, and then they were planting their crops in between, in between the windrow of the sand piles that they had, that they’d taken up off the land, and that's how they were able to at least be able to plant their crops. And of course, we all remember what happened in 9/11. I, myself, and a gal by the name of Brenda Jones had TVs in our offices and were able to monitor daily activities where we're going on around the world for military support and also emergency operations. And so on that particular day, I usually came into work, usually every morning before 7. And I turned my TV on, and next thing I know, I saw the planes hit in New York, and then it was Washington, D.C. It didn't take long before RJ [Thompson, the EROS director], we knew what was going to happen, called and said, “Up to my office.” And this facility was closed because of this being a federal facility. I, myself, and a few other people that were required to stay here, and we were working directly with the people in New York. Later on that night, I got a telephone call from the governor of New York and said he had a classified database up and running; by tomorrow morning, I need to have imagery that you have and put out there, and then they were collecting imagery as well. And so I had to call people in the computer lab and had some of those people come out, and we had a classified database up and running the next morning, and that was just one of the many examples that we did in support of the 9/11 activities. Katrina, of course, was a big one. We all know what happened there, in the science department, particularly. We're working and supporting, you know, flood inundation maps, how much damage was actually physically done. We worked with FEMA, we worked with the people and particularly the first responders in New Orleans. People were trying to figure out how they can get rescued from their homes when they were in the upper part of their two-story and didn't have an address, you couldn't contact, no phones. And so what happened was, is that these people indicated that we can put their house number on top of the roof. And so they go up and paint it on top of their roof. Put letters up there so they knew exactly where you were at. And so we were to collect with, with drones, we were able to collect with satellite data, different CONUS and other types of satellite data, and be able to pass that information down to first responders, particularly in New Orleans. Of course, we supported Afghanistan. You're well aware of that. Before our troops went into either Iraq or Afghanistan, we mapped all those countries using Landsat data, and sent those maps off to our troops. We did a lot of support by doing the activities that were, I guess we had to worry about flooding as they were concerned about the Tigris River. If they blew the dam up, how much water would be concerned? Our troops wouldn’t be into harm's way, as we found out with the scientists measuring the amount of water behind the dam, that if they did blow the dam up, the water would only be about 6 inches deep by the time of where our troops were at, so there was no big concern there. I had an opportunity, I worked a lot with the Marine intel, supporting their operations, SOCOM, and again, this is all in support of Wayne Rohde and the military operations. But the other thing they were doing, which I did not know at the time, is that they were putting antennas to receive Landsat data on top of the Humvees. That was the first time that I'm aware of that outside of the EROS Data Center and other collections of Landsat data, but they were collecting Landsat data in the desert off of the Humvees.


Jeff Eidenshink wore many hats during his tenure at EROS, including fire science team coordinator and acting director. His talk on the alumni stage centered on the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) antenna, which was housed at EROS from the 1980s through 2017. Data from the AVHRR spurred new directions in land cover research.

Jeff Eidenshink

Speak a little bit about the global 1-kilometer project, the AVHRR project. Many of you know it was near and dear to my heart. So was AVHRR. We started way back in the ’80s, way back, and proved the concept in the northern Great Plains and grassland fire danger. Then we moved to the western U.S. and included forest fire danger, worked with people at the Missoula Fire Lab a lot. Then we did the whole U.S. We were doing China, we were doing Alaska, but we'd do just about any place a three-letter agency would tell us to do it. And I think that might be the June image, 1992, which made it the first global image that we ever completed. And it kind of, well, it demonstrated a couple of things internally at EROS, demonstrated our imagination, our dedication and intellect—a lot of things to be able to pull this off throughout the center. To the rest of the community, the remote sensing community, here in the United States, globally, we were able to prove that we could do this. You think about it. It was, conterminous U.S. was used for land cover mapping. That led to the global land cover mapping, which Jess [Brown] and Tom Loveland and Brad Reed and Don Ohlen and other people all did, and look how important that is and agri-business and fire. We still do fire every week. You'll look, you can look out on the web, and you can see fire danger in the United States, and it all stems from the work here and the work we did with, with the conterminous U.S. before that. And so, you know, it pleases me that everything we did, we didn't just do for show. It was used. It was used throughout the world.


Bruce Millett, principal investigator for South Dakota View and a professor at South Dakota State University, talked about using Landsat data to research the prairie pothole region. 

Bruce Millett

Some work with the prairie pothole region. This is kind of like in the central flyway for all the waterfowl, for example, that we have flying through there, and I have a graduate student, Madison, who's sitting in the back there. And she's working on these two projects, and her master's thesis will be on using Landsat, and then we'll be looking at surface water, and we're going to be looking at the trends over time, trying to find some hot spots and cold spots out there, looking at climate and seeing where certain portions of the prairie pothole region may be increasing in surface water and other areas that may be decreasing. And this was kind of spawned off with some of my research that I initially had with Carter Johnson at SDSU. And my first limnology class that I had with Steve Chipps, standing there in the back.


Dave Greenlee started at the Data Analysis Lab, or DAL, in 1974. His specialty was geographic information systems, or GIS, and like many at EROS, he became involved with many different projects. At the 50th festivities, he focused on how the internet became a platform to share data. 

Dave Greenlee

You can remember what happened in about ’95. We were starting to go through this, you know, try to figure out what EROS is going to do with this thing called the internet. And when we, Phil, you can probably relate to the, the notion that we were told that we were only to charge the marginal cost of reproduction, and then the internet sort of changed everything because it was cheaper for us to hang things out there for people and say, you know, anybody can come and get it, it's open, than it would be for us to make it to take a credit card and make a product, you know, and make the custom product. So that changed, for me, that changed a lot of things because when I got involved with Katrina or the Yellowstone fire of ’88, you know, we didn't really worry about, we still had [name inaudible] from the Park Service who wanted us to do this and that and this and that, but we, but we did that, we just like hung it out there. We just, and over the years it got easier and easier for us to put big datasets out there. And one of the things that happened during the Great Flood with us, which was a SAST [Scientific Assessment and Strategy Team] team, we had like a third of the country that was in our basin database, the floods were the, like, the lower half of the Missouri River and the upper two-thirds or so of the Mississippi River. And so the basin, you can imagine what the basis for that is. We built the database, you know, that had about a third of the conterminous U.S. in there. And at the same time, we were working with some new technology called the Spatial Database Engine [SDE]. And they were trying to figure out how to do raster data with the Spatial Database Engine, and they could do vector. So we just started using SDE, which was Oracle, and some, you know, some ArcInfo kind of software. We were hanging the kind of stuff we've been working on smallish kind of things out there, as for kind of largest things and the … for me the, that came together with what we called the seamless server, and the seamless server eventually was, served up the topography and like the NED [National Elevation Database] and the stuff derived from NED. And also you know … the GeoWall, and the GloVis [Global Visualization Viewer], the global visualization stuff, people had these good ideas, and some of them came out like this: They’d say, well, we've done a third of the, you know, area, and we've got the technology; we've got a little disk, extra disk space, and you know, when I go home at night, I'll just turn the job loose. So we'll, we'll crank out another little hunk of it. And so that's the way some of these databases got built. And NED had, was an example of that. So because they had, they had funded projects to do some of these things, but, mostly it was, like, I would say, ordinary people who just had this, picked up on this, this idea, this dream, and then eventually it just became something big.


Darrell Napton, professor emeritus of geography and geospatial sciences at South Dakota State University, was a visiting scientist at EROS from 1999-2011. His research focus was on land change for the protection of ecosystems.

Darrell Napton

I worked with the land cover trends project, looked at 48 conterminous states and land cover and land cover changes from the 1970s through 2000. And as I said, we looked at the whole country and in terms of favorite memories, one of them is we did field trips in all of the nation—83 ecoregions—to calibrate, you know, what's changed since the last image was taken and what was the last image and the interpretation of it, what we were seeing on the ground.


Jim Irons and Curtis Woodcock, who collaborated on the Landsat Science Team, both traveled to Sioux Falls for the anniversary event. I’ll let them introduce each other.

Jim Irons

Let me introduce my distinguished colleague here: This is Curtis Woodcock. My colleague here. He is a professor at Boston University, and he has served as the leader of the last three Landsat Science Teams. So he has been very engaged with EROS for many years, was a close colleague of Tom Loveland's. You did a sabbatical here, right?

Curtis Woodcock

I spent a sabbatical coming to EROS on a regular basis, trying to help start the national LCMAP, the Land Change Monitoring and Assessment Program. Let me introduce Dr. Jim, James Irons from NASA, who served as the Landsat 8 project scientist, and so he helped shepherd Landsat 8 through the process to getting launched. He was also sort of the representative, NASA representative to the science team, for the first two terms at least of the Landsat Science Team.


EROS’ contributions and impact on our ability to observe and understand how the Earth works has been profound. The biggest event in the last 50 years, in my mind, was what I considered a politically brave decision to release the data at no cost to people who requested it, which was made in 2008, and basically revolutionized the application and the use of the data for science and societal benefits. The example set by EROS was followed by the European Space Agency in their Copernicus program, and they weren't intending to provide their data for free until EROS set that example. So, yeah, and it was a big hard, you know, somewhat painful change here at EROS to go that direction, and yet they made it. And then also EROS has kept up and embraced other important parts of the Landsat program like calibration and keeping the system calibrated and advancing the level of data products that are available from Landsat and other systems, and all of that has been very important; and all that was made possible by this decision to make the data available at no cost. 


EROS has provided the gold standard for collecting, archiving and distributing top quality satellite data that has been the shining light on the hill for the rest of the world.


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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