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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)


“NASA is honored by this recognition from a leader in the use of geospatial data and tools across sectors.  This honor is truly a tribute to the many people who design and operate the Earth-observing satellite missions, process and deliver the data, and analyze the measurements to benefit all humankind.” 

— Michael H. Freilich, Director of the NASA Earth Science Division

Overview of NASA’s GIS Leadership and Role

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is initiator and sustainer of the ‘Remote Sensing Revolution’, which began 40 years ago, and which has been essential to the development of geographic information systems (GIS) in the United States and around the world. NASA has been a leader in the development and use of remote sensing data and tools, and the evolution of GIS data and applications for a wide range of public and private sector organizations. This is supported by the vast number of professional papers and books or special publications that have been published, as well as a plethora of educational programs, workshops, and training courses that have been developed, which emphasize the utility of remote sensing in spatial analysis and mapping. Additionally, NASA has spurred the integration of remote sensing technology with GIS over four decades of funding through its research, application and educational programs to actively bring this technology to universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies via grants and cooperative agreements. Aerial imagery from aircraft and satellite platforms has played a critical role in GIS development. Since the 1960s, NASA has been in the forefront of acquiring such data, delivering tools and services for processing it, and providing GIS-based integration and applications for making use of remote sensing data for imagery and GIS users throughout the world.

NASA’s Role in the “Remote Sensing Revolution”

Geographic information systems and geospatial information technology development in the United States and internationally is indebted to the early and consistent research and support provided by NASA. A great many players and institutions were critically important to the modern community of GIS and its omnipresent role in mapping, monitoring, and managing business, state and local governments, ecosystems and landscapes. However, without the advent of remote sensing to fuel the development of systems processing advancements and earth resources applications, a much different GIS community would exist today. Much credit must be given to NASA for initiating the wide-spread use of remote sensing data with the launch of its Earth observing satellites, commencing with the launch of Landsat 1, and its interaction with the USGS in its Geographic Applications Program which helped to establish the ‘remote sensing revolution’, thereby engendering a major contribution to information systems, education, training, research and applications.

One important example of the management and use of remote sensing data is the effective cooperation between NASA and the USGS, in the establishment of the Earth Resources Observation Science (EROS) facility in Sioux Falls, SD in the early 1970s. EROS has now become the primary remotely sensed data management, systems development, and research field center for the USGS, and is the primary site for accessing current and archived Landsat data. Moreover, the EROS Data Center provides technical expertise and services to the USGS and partners across government, industry, and academia, with focus on satellite sensors’ capabilities, reliability, and accuracy. The USGS’s Remote Sensing Technology Project works with aerial imaging technology (film and digital), satellite technology (commercial, government, and foreign), as well as emerging sensors such as LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) to further understand how these technologies can assist science, land management, and civil uses. A detailed discussion of the NASA-USGS partnership that has fostered the widespread use of remote sensing data in GIS development is given in The History of Geographic Information Systems: Perspectives of the Pioneers (Prentice Hall, 1998).

NASA’s Work in Fostering and Supporting GIS Applications

The role that NASA has played in the development of GIS cannot be viewed as an independent process. NASA has been a driving force in the integration of remote sensing data with other spatial information into a functional GIS format, but it is really the applications of remote sensing data to real world problems that have contributed to the evolution of GIS into what it is today. Beginning with the NASA Regional and State Remote Sensing Applications Program that was initiated (circa 1973) after the launch of Landsat 1, and which has now evolved the into the dynamic Applied Sciences Program of today, NASA has fostered the use of remote sensing for regional, state, and local applications. Within the overall scope of the program’s applications is the improvement of decision and policy making at state and local governmental levels. Of paramount importance is to demonstrate the utility of remote sensing data and models as part of ‘decision support systems’ to improve the decision-making process, and to facilitate state and community urban planners and policy makers in choosing economically prudent and sustainable decisions on urban growth, and for assessing the impacts of urbanization on the environment. The ability of a GIS to manipulate data from both temporal and spatial data dimensions provides the foundation to build a decision support system. A decision support system provides two critical approaches to the decision maker: The technical staff can use the unique combination of tools (including remote sensing data) to present information to the decision maker; The decision maker is provided with interactive tools that promotes a user-friendly atmosphere for manipulating, analyzing, and displaying information.

After its 1972 launch, Landsat 1 exceeded expectations and very quickly became a source of earth image data serving resource evaluation applications and practical research. Landsat 1 established a foundation for the use of digital imagery in spatial analysis and mapping applications and its successors have provided data critical for an expanded range of GIS applications. NASA set into motion software development, data processing, scientific research and applications programs through three major Earth Resources Centers: initially at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Stennis Space Center, and Ames Research Center. Universities, such as Purdue, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Kansas, Penn State, and Georgia Tech, were early principal investigators addressing myriad approaches to handling the vast data volumes form synoptic satellite sensing.

Raster software for handling satellite data was able to perform basic GIS functions in the early 1970s. A technological cultural separation kept the raster and vector processing communities somewhat disconnected until the early 1980s, albeit, both raster and vector were requisite for GIS maturation. NASA’s direct development support in the 1970’s can be traced to luminary image processing programs, such as ORSER, LARSYS, I2S, IDMS, LAS, ERDAS, VICAR, GRASS, and UNEP GRID. By the mid to late 1980s GIS software companies such as IDRISI, MapInfo, and ESRI used their work on NASA sponsored projects as a basis for product development. With NASA involvement, a number of researchers and GIS companies such as ERDAS, pioneered the developed of tools for integration of vector data with remotely sensed raster which were the foundation for GIS software and applications today.

NASA has pushed GIS development in research and applications on hydrology, agriculture, soil erosion, endangered species, and habitat protection, marine sciences, land use management, and urbanization, as documented by innumerable projects and reports across a range of science disciplines and applications. For example, NASA was a major collaborator for the Maryland research project on urban expansion that resulted in Maryland’s bellwether Smart Growth initiative in 1997. In Atlanta and other cities in the mid-1990’s, NASA researchers pushed the envelope on time-series analysis of urbanization impacts on heat islands and air quality merging remotely sensed data with GIS management systems.

NASA’s Continuing Role in Remotes Sensing and GIS

NASA is continuing to sustain and expand remote sensing data as an integral asset for spatial analytical systems and GIS technology. The Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) is a key core capability in NASA’s Earth Science Data Systems Program. It provides end-to-end capabilities for managing NASA’s Earth science data from various sources – satellites, aircraft, field measurements, and various other programs. For the EOS satellite missions, EOSDIS provides capabilities for command and control, scheduling, data capture and initial processing. NASA is also a member of the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) Standards Working Group, which is an interagency committee that promotes the coordinated development, use, sharing, and dissemination of geospatial data on a national basis. A significant aspect of NASA’s management and distribution of satellite data are the Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs). The purpose of the NASA-funded system DAACs is to provide consistent and stable scientific data stewardship for NASA Earth Observation System data. There are currently nine data centers in the system covering the range of Earth science and related data.

From an international perspective, NASA has a record of active involvement with numerous international partners to push applications and systems development. ISPRA and others were early partners. The UNEP-GRID program was created in the 1980’s directly from NASA’s Earth Resources Laboratory that was located at the National Space Technology Laboratories (now Stennis Space Center), which led to a series of permanent GRID offices in Nairobi, Geneva, Arendal, and the EROS Data Center in Sioux Falls. This legacy continues to drive GIS development around the world. An excellent example of NASA’s present-day international involvement is the SERVIR program that was established in 2005. SERVIR—the Regional Visualization and Monitoring System—helps government officials, managers, scientists, researchers, students, and the general public make decisions by providing Earth observations and predictive models based on data from orbiting satellites. The SERVIR system, which is a partnership between NASA and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), helps nations in Mesoamerica, East Africa, and the Himalayan regions cope with eight areas of societal benefit identified by the Group on Earth Observations (GEO): disasters, ecosystems, biodiversity, weather, water, climate, health, and agriculture. Decision makers use SERVIR to improve their ability to monitor air quality, extreme weather, biodiversity, and changes in land cover, and the system has been used extensively to respond to environmental threats such as wildfires, floods, landslides, and harmful algal blooms. In addition, SERVIR analyzes, provides information about, and offers adaptation strategies for nations affected by climate change. In a very real sense, SERVIR provides basic information for living on planet Earth.

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