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On September 21, 1966, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall issued a press release stating his belief that “the time is now right and urgent to apply space technology towards the solution of many pressing natural resource problems being compounded by population and industrial growth.”
With this press release, Secretary Udall announced the beginning of Project EROS, Earth Resources Observation Satellites, previously researched and promoted by William Pecora and others in the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of the Interior. Project EROS was a revolutionary concept; a program to gather facts about the natural resources of our planet from orbiting satellites carrying advanced Earth-imaging instruments.
Recently, we visited with Secretary Udall at his home in New Mexico and talked about Project EROS.
My announcement in 1966 came at a very propitious time because we were getting involved in big issues in the international picture where the conservation movement was expanding into the environmental movement so it was a very key time and as I look back now, the EROS program was one of the important achievements of that period.
In the years since Secretary Udall’s announcement, the Department of the Interior and USGS, in partnership with NASA, developed one of the world’s foremost institutional capabilities for Earth science and observation. Secretary Udall’s announcement led to the launch of the first Landsat satellite in 1972, followed by six more satellites over the next 35 years. Over time, the success of this program resulted in a national data archive managed by the Department of the Interior in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Earth Resources Observation and Science Data Center is recognized throughout the world for the unique role it plays in remote sensing.
Dr. Sam Goward:
The data center has played a major role—and it's an interesting one—which is that through time there's been an effort to establish the archive of these observations as a congressionally mandated archive of measurements. It's the only place in the world this has ever occurred. We're unusual and we continue to be unusual in not only acquiring global observations but preserving them. And so the EROS Data Center represents a one of a kind first effort to embrace not just technology but the history of the measurements that lead us to understand over time what's happening to the planet Earth.
Through the Landsat program and the entire USGS, we have a better understanding of climate and environmental changes and the challenges faced by nations around the world…enabling scientists, environmentalists, and land use practitioners to address Secretary Udall’s original concern for preservation of Earth’s natural environment.
And USGS was I believe then, I used to say the best scientific organization in the government of the United States. The head of the Geological Survey I spent time with him, I spent a lot of time, I appointed Dr. William Pecora. That was one of the best appointments that I made. He was not only a good manager; he knew how to handle people. He had vision and it was his vision that caused me to make this press statement.
This simple but revolutionary idea -- to study the Earth from space using advanced camera and instrument technology -- came as a result of this nation’s decision to invest in space technologies and, eventually, to voyage to the moon. NASA and the Department of the Interior shared that original vision; and it was through the support of NASA that the Department of the Interior was able to plan Project EROS.
And for us at Interior, the most challenging thing that we saw was when they began taking pictures of the Earth from outer space. We saw it as a blue, a wonderful blue orb sitting there and we saw the early, some of the early photographs where you could see the pollution coming in out of the four corners area in my home country—part of the country, and this is why Dr. Pecora and his advisers said this has a wonderful potential to enable us to map not just the United States, the whole Earth and that was the challenge they presented to me and it didn't take very much persuasion for me to say “Yeah, let's announce that we wanted to do this.”
Dr. Curtis Woodcock:
I think if you look at the comments of Stewart Udall that he initially anticipated something very important which was that we needed basic information or maps, so to speak, of our natural resources and over the first years of the Landsat program the primary focus was on mapping the characteristics of the surface of the Earth and trying to provide better information about natural resources. Eventually, what we have learned is that overwhelmingly more invaluable is the ability to monitor change. And so the ability to monitor change has come about because of this continuity of measurements over a long period of time. So what we have now is an archive of over thirty years worth of data that in essence is the best history of the surface of the Earth available. And it now exists and will continue to exist and will hopefully be added to as time goes on.
Dr. Darrel Williams
One of the greatest advantages we’ve had with Landsat is the continuity from the first time we launched to the present…What we have is what I call a digital format family album of the globe and we can sit down and look back in time and say how did this area change? What happened and when. We had only one child and we took a lot of snapshots early and I regret I haven’t done it more consistently but it’s a great asset that we have this digital family photo album of the globe and I think it’s imperative that we continue it.
Today, the Department of the Interior is keenly aware of the legacy of Stewart Udall and the revolutionary idea he proposed. The Landsat series of satellites is recognized around the world for the unique quality and utility of its imagery -- for assessing changes to the land, to Earth’s agriculture, forests, wetlands, and coastal areas, and to the ecology of life itself upon our planet … for monitoring land affected by hurricanes and earthquakes, the impacts of urbanization, population growth, and land use change, the effects of the deforestation and global climate change ... all observable from space and of great consequence to society.
Dr. Curtis Woodcock:
The continuing need for observations is really a result of an ongoing process of change at the surface of the Earth. We have one planet, we have lots of people, we have always more people, and we're changing the planet in innumerable ways and in essence the history of Landsat data provides a benchmark against which is possible to measure change in the future. So the two together the past data and the future data are far more valuable together than they would be independently.
From the early days of America’s exploration of space for the benefit of all mankind, people of vision such as Stuart Udall and William Pecora saw an opportunity and seized it, developing sophisticated space technologies to advance science, preserve our planet, and improve people’s lives. Today, we understand that Udall’s vision gave us exciting new ways to view our home planet, and even more exciting ways to preserve its beauty and wonder for future generations.
Over four decades after Secretary Udall’s historic announcement, the Nation is calling for the Department of the Interior to take yet another step into the future; a future in which technology and science will continue to serve the interests of natural resource management and preservation, and of humanity itself.
To do the job of conserving and wisely using the resources of the Earth, the whole Earth, will become more and more important. There is no question about it in my mind. And that means that USGS, the EROS program, their missions will be more important and will have to grow and grow as they serve not only the United States but the Earth itself.
Who knows what future generations will learn from an operational land imaging program? One thing is certain—we have the science, we have the people, and we have the curiosity about our planet to move boldly through this new century.
Title: An Idea That Worked
On September 21, 1966, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall issued a press statement stating his belief that “the time is now right and urgent to apply space technology towards the solution of many pressing natural resources problems being compounded by population and industrial growth.” This video provides a sense of America’s long-term commitment to conservation, illustrating the depth of the USGS EROS archive and the contributions of Secretary Stewart Udall.
Date Taken: 12/20/2007
Video Producer: Don Becker , U.S. Geological Survey
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