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Fifty years ago, on September 21, 1966, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall announced his vision to create “a program aimed at gathering facts about the natural resources of the earth from earth-orbiting satellites.” It was an idealistic goal at the time, but came with encouragement and support from U.S. Geological Survey Director Bill Pecora. The announcement created "Project EROS."

Stewart Lee Udall, Secretary of the Interior, 1961-69. Canyonlands National Park (Utah) was one of four national parks established (1964) under his leadership. (public domain)

Over the past five decades, the Landsat Program and other international earth observation programs have matured. Udall’s vision gave the world the confidence to create satellite systems to help people understand the intricate nature of our planet with a new perspective.

Udall loved his America the beautiful. Biographers say he would lead 50-mile hikes during his tenure as Interior secretary (1961-69). He designated Assateague Island in Maryland and Virginia, with its hundreds of wild horses, as a national seashore and turned Ellis Island in New York Harbor into a national monument. Under Udall’s authority as cabinet secretary, four national parks, six national monuments, and dozens of wildlife refuges, historic sites, and recreation areas were created.

Udall’s passion for the outdoors often led him to quote President Teddy Roosevelt who once remarked as he stood among nature’s splendor. There it is, magnificent. Man cannot improve upon it; leave it alone.

It turns out that we often don’t leave it alone. In fact, by the 1960s, air and water pollution coupled with industrial growth had begun to weigh on a planet that appeared increasingly finite. And so it was that 50 years ago, on Sept. 21, 1966, Udall decided to act. The Interior Secretary called a press conference and announced that the time was right for the world to start looking after the well-being of the Earth from a new vantage point - space.

In a bold proclamation, Udall revealed that NASA and the Interior Department would collaborate on Earth-observing space technology to inventory, monitor, and manage the planet’s natural resources. Initially called Project EROS, short for Earth Resources Observation Satellites, the many fruits of this ambitious vision would become unparalleled in remote-sensing history.

Back in September 1966, there was no guarantee Project EROS would happen at all. America seemed fixated on putting a man on the moon. While Udall and his chief at the U.S. Geological Survey, Dr. William Pecora, were pushing space technology to monitor land cover dynamics, NASA was more focused on the stars.

Udall’s press conference created a storm of political protest from NASA and Defense agencies, neither of which wanted another competitor in the Earth observations business, University of Maryland geography professor Sam Goward wrote after Udall’s death in March 2010. Rumor has it that President Johnson, furious with the resulting controversy, never spoke with Secretary Udall again.

Johnson might not have liked Udall’s idea, but many in Congress did, said Goward, writing for the Landsat Legacy Project. The groundswell of support coming out of the nation’s capital spurred NASA to develop the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) starting in 1967. ERTS-1 entered orbit on July 23, 1972, and was renamed Landsat in 1975. Since then, six more Landsat satellites have followed that initial effort into space. There would have been a seventh had Landsat 6 not failed to reach orbit on Oct. 5, 1993.

In Landsat, Udall pushed for remote-sensing technology that ultimately creates data files categorized as mid-resolution land imagery. While low-resolution imagery sees large events, like hurricanes, while high-resolution imagery can pinpoint individual buildings, Landsat’s mid-resolution capabilities fill an important niche, identifying human activity such as agriculture or forest harvesting on a regional scale.

If Udall’s environmental resolve was to monitor forest health, mobilize food resources to drought-stricken areas, observe climate change impact on the polar ice caps, monitor crop health and stress, measure the impacts of carbon escaping into the atmosphere, and map land cover change, then, as Thomas Loveland, senior scientist at the USGS EROS Center in Sioux Falls, SD, has said, we nailed it.

Today the world finds itself in the early stages of an incredible Earth-observing revolution, Loveland believes. The ways and the frequency with which Landsat is used for studying our changing planet are at their most active level in the satellite system’s 50-year history, he said.

Curiously, Loveland continued, we’re at this point because of a policy decision that enabled the progressive development of an untried technology. We’re at this point because Stewart Udall decided that humankind, having injured Mother Nature, shouldn’t leave her alone. He had to act. He called a press conference. He made a bold, political proclamation. He launched a vision - to observe Earth for the benefit of all. It was an idea that worked, and an idea that continues to work.

For the past 44 years, the sophisticated instruments on Landsat satellites have captured millions of environmental snapshots for a digital photo album of the family Earth. Though other satellite systems have emerged since then, none have approached Landsat’s longevity for continuously mapping the planet’s surface. None have recorded land cover change on such a global scale. No other system has spurred the revolution in scientific advances and business applications by universities, industry, government agencies, and individuals that Landsat has, especially since its current and archived data became available at no charge in 2008.

The program has been so successful that in 2015, the Obama Administration and Congress committed to establishing the Sustainable Land Imaging (SLI) Program. That solid recognition should advance Udall’s vision through the planned launch of Landsat 9 in 2021 and beyond, with the next generation of Landsat instruments.

To celebrate 50 years of success, NASA and USGS have planned a series of events in 2016 culminating on Sept. 21 with an anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C. Whether Udall would have appreciated such hoopla is difficult to say. Still, it is important for us to understand the boldness and the value of his vision so that we may look to the future with similar courage.

1966 Press Release

Earth Observation & Our National Parks

In this 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS), it seems appropriate to remember Stewart Udall's affinity for national parks and the work he did to revitalize the agency and expand the National Park System as well. Udall presided over the acquisition of 3.85 million acres of new holdings, including four national parks, six national monuments, nine national recreation areas, 20 historic sites, 50 wildlife refuges, and eight national seashores.

In a series of "Images of the Week", USGS is highlighting both parks Udall brought into the NPS, as well as others that he loved and oversaw as Interior Secretary. Come back often to see links to this majestic wilderness captured in Landsat, ASTER, MODIS, and other remotely sensed imagery.

Images of the Week:

Yellowstone National Park

Canyonlands National Park

Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Crater Lake National Park

Redwood National Park

Glacier Bay National Park

National Parks Earth Observatory


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