Landsat: The View at 50

"If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants," scientific pioneer Isaac Newton said modestly.  Just as Newton changed the view of the world in the 17th century, satellites changed our view of the world in the 20th century. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall was one of those giant, broad-shouldered visionaries. 

Fifty years ago, on September 21, 1966, Udall announced his "vision to observe Earth for the benefit of all" by creating "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 then-U.S. Geological Survey Director Bill Pecora pushed it wholeheartedly.

The announcement created “Project EROS," which stands for Earth Resources Observation Satellites. Project Eros was an effort "to collect valuable resource data and use it to improve the quality of the environment." The first Project EROS satellite was subsequently launched by NASA in 1972. The program was later renamed Landsat and has gone on to become the longest continuous program of land observation from satellites. For the past 44 years, Landsat satellites have captured millions of environmental snapshots for a digital photo album of the family Earth. Landsat operates through a close partnership between NASA, which builds and launches each Landsat, and the USGS, which operates the satellites and manages their data.   This evening at Interior headquarters in Washington, Interior and NASA will celebrate the fulfillment of Udall's vision on the 50th anniversary of his announcement. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael L.  Connor, NASA Earth Science Director Dr. Michael Freilich, and Sen. Tom Udall—Stewart Udall’s son—plan to address NASA, USGS  and other Interior employees and dignitaries. They will present “Pecora awards” for earth science.

Fifty years later, it seems that  Secretary Udall’s vision must have foreseen the need to find better ways to monitor forest health and drought, mobilize food resources to stricken areas, observe climate change impacts, monitor crop health, and map land-cover change.  If so,  then “we nailed it,” according to Thomas Loveland, senior scientist at the USGS EROS Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Though other satellite systems have emerged since Landsat, none have spurred the revolution in scientific advances and business applications by universities, industry, government agencies, and individuals that Landsat has stimulated.  The work of many of us rests on Secretary Udall’s and Director Pecora’s shoulders.