In 1967, a decade after the launch of Sputnik 1, then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson said of satellite technology, “We’ve spent [billions] on the space program. And if nothing else had come out of it except the knowledge that we gained from space photography, it would be worth ten times what the whole program has cost.”* This was, of course, two years before NASA put a man on the moon and set the new standard for U.S. scientific achievement, but still, Johnson’s statement is striking. Apart from any manned missions or other exploratory endeavors, advances in satellite photography of our own planet made the entire space program financially viable.
When President Johnson made this statement he was, of course, talking about the benefits to military intelligence inherent in satellite technology, but there are other advances in space photography and videography that are, while arguably less noteworthy, no less important. Today, NASA uses a variety of Earth-observing satellite systems. These satellites are not used for military surveillance, but instead are deployed to act as scientific measurement tools to help give us a better understanding of the global environment.
The study of the interaction between the Earth’s systems, otherwise known as Earth system science (ESS), is one of the most complex and fascinating disciplines ever conceived. Technological advancements in satellites provide us with more intricately detailed information than ever about how the cycles of air, land, water, and life interact to define the context within which we live our lives on this planet, and they highlight more than ever the fragility of our ecology.
NOVA’s new special “Earth From Space” captures with striking elegance the dynamic quality of Earth’s many systems. By combining information collected from satellites with state-of-the-art computer models, NOVA’s production team has rendered graphics that are not only scientifically accurate, but also dazzlingly beautiful. The end result is a show that is as aesthetically appealing as it is scientifically informative.
The knowledge gained from our satellites is assorted, precise, vast, and supports the advancement of science that provides us with an important lens through which to understand the most fundamental thing we have: our home. In order to survive and prosper in the future, humans need to know as much as we can about our planet and the way it functions. In order to help, NOVA has produced an Education Collection focused on Earth system science and designed to help educators investigate the various manifestations of ESS with their students.
Sadly, the sobering truth is that in the next decade, the number of Earth observing satellites in NASA’s fleet will go from 20 to fewer than 10. To put it simply, ESS hangs in the balance due to our uncertain economic future. “Earth From Space” makes a compelling case for the support of our satellite systems. These aren’t simply orbiting pieces of space junk. Rather, they give us the perspective necessary to understand our lives in a truly global context.
That, ultimately, is the gift of programs like “Earth From Space.” They serve as a resource to help humanity gain perspective that we so often lack in the day-to-day goings on of existence. NOVA is streaming the program online. If you have a chance, check it out. Earth system science never looked so good.
* DeNooyer, R. (Writer), & Wolfinger, K. (Producer) (2007). Sputnik declassified [Television series episode]. In Apsell, P. S. (Executive Producer), NOVA. Boston, MA: WGBH Educational Foundation.