Dan Irwin: Earth Scientist
When I was about 10 years old I went to a summer camp, and one of our projects was to find an old barn known to have been in the area 100 years before. The camp director had some aerial photos of the barn. When I looked at those pictures, it hit me for the first time that you could see things from back in the past with "eyes in the sky."
In graduate school years later, I took an environmental science class, and we had to write a paper on a special way to use satellite images. I remembered that old barn from summer camp, and that's when I knew what I wanted to do my project on -- remote sensing and archeology. Remote sensing, to put it simply, means using pictures taken from the sky to learn about what's happening, or has happened, on the ground.
In my research, I kept coming across the name Tom Sever. He was then a NASA archeologist and really a legend in remote sensing archeology. It was beyond my wildest dreams that I might really meet and work with him someday.
A year or so later, after I got my master's degree, I was doing some mapping work in Guatemala for an international conservation organization. Lo and behold here comes Tom to do archeological field work in the same location. We ended up working together. I took one look at the satellite images Tom had with him, and that moment changed my life.
Here I had been struggling through the muddy, rugged jungle and fields for 6 to 8 hours every day with an old GPS to do my mapping, yet there was this incredible way to map and display the area and its environmental resources. I literally packed a slide projector on a mule and trekked for miles from village to village showing the people these satellite images of the deforestation in their country. From the ground, the forest appeared to the villagers to go on forever. The satellite images showed them the truth -- the devastation nearby.
A few years later Tom offered me a job at Marshall. I would walk through the hallways at work, seeing the great work NASA researchers do, and think, "Wow! I know some people that could use that!" I was thinking of those villagers back in Guatemala. So we developed our SERVIR program to provide NASA satellite images and data to those very people on an ongoing basis.
We use that satellite information to make special maps for the people in Central America, Africa, and parts of Asia now, and we plan to expand to even more areas. The maps show where flooding, wildfires, or other natural disasters have happened, or where their landscapes have been ravaged through deforestation or other mistakes. At a glance, disaster relief workers or environmental officials in those countries can pinpoint areas they need to evacuate, send help to, or better protect.
We also use SERVIR to teach students and others how to use the tools and data themselves to get the information they need to help their communities. There’s nothing more rewarding than having a student walk up to me after a presentation I'm giving in their country and say, "We're using your data for a local environmental project and it’s really making a difference!" I relish having a small part in helping people to do a better job protecting their environment locally.
The best thing about my work is that I stand on the shoulders of great people at NASA who develop satellite and other technology, and I get to take these data and tools that last mile -- using them for the good of society. People traditionally think of NASA in terms of the space shuttle, the International Space Station, and the cosmos. But we also play a huge part in understanding our home planet and what the human footprint is leaving for future generations. Like the "eye in the sky" that found that old barn back in summer camp, we can use our satellites to teach us about past and current patterns, and about how to protect Earth's future.