News Releases

NASA'S Daniel Irwin Builds Environmental Monitoring Systems -- and Playgrounds -- to Improve Life in Rural Central America
Steve Roy
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
(Phone: 256.544.0034)

News Release: 05-158

Dan Irwin, left, and Guatemalan builder Tito Chi tour the Carlos Soza Manzanero Community Playground in San Andres, Guatemala. NASA researcher Daniel Irwin is a man of two worlds. In his laboratory at the National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC) in Huntsville, Ala., Irwin spends his days developing technologies to help safeguard the nations of Central America from wildfires, floods, deforestation and other types of environmental stress.

The rest of the time, he ponders ways to improve the lives of the people there and uplift a culture he has come to love over the past 12 years. He built the first children's library in northern Guatemala -- a region twice the size of New Jersey -- as well as the first playground thousands of Guatemalan children have ever seen.

Irwin is a research scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. He serves as project manager for "SERVIR," a Spanish acronym for the regional environmental visualization and monitoring system he co-developed at the NSSTC with principal investigator Tom Sever. SERVIR is designed to help Central American and southern Mexican authorities and scientists identify sudden changes in environmental conditions. Its robust imaging and mapping technologies provide regional governments, scientists and stakeholders with imagery detailing everything from tropical storms and "red tides" of toxic algae to forest fires and the ravaging effects of deforestation.

SERVIR is also the region's foremost contribution to the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), an international cooperative between the United States and other developed and developing nations. GEOSS's goal is to unite new and existing environmental and climate research hardware and technologies and make them universally compatible and available at no cost across the globe. This "system of systems" approach will improve data distribution and help mitigate the effects of natural and environmental disasters.

In February 2005, Irwin helped open the regional SERVIR facility at the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC) in City of Knowledge, Panama. Irwin travels there frequently to support SERVIR's growth and expansion and work with Sever on other NASA environmental mapping projects across the region.

Irwin is no stranger to Central America. The tiny, 5,000-member community of San Andrés has become his second home. He first arrived in 1993 to map local forests, supplying data for development of geographic information systems and to train local researchers to properly use remote sensing technologies.

He also met San Andrés resident Julieta Puga and promptly increased his Spanish studies in order to better converse with her. They married in 1996 on a beach near San Andrés, clinching Irwin's relationship with this tropical paradise on the edge of the "Selva Maya," the largest rainforest north of the Amazon. It also compelled him to tackle the needs of the community on a more intimate scale than he was used to in his professional life.

"There were no children's resources," Irwin says. "In a community with 2,000 kids, there wasn't much for them to do." The town park had become overgrown and abandoned. A substandard, poorly assembled playground built in the early 1980s had quickly succumbed to the climate, rusting and falling apart. There was no library, no recreation center – nowhere kids could be kids.

Irwin decided to change that. In 1999, supported by philanthropic donations and a grant from the Ecesis Foundation in Boulder, Colo., Irwin and some partners built the "Viva la Selva" library, which translates to the "forest lives." Filled with donated Spanish books, telescopes and computers, it was the first children's library anywhere in the region, and it has since spawned many similar projects in other Guatemalan communities. In 2001, the library added a cultural center to help renew interest in traditional local music and dance.

Still Irwin wanted to do more. He dreamed of building an extensive playground in San Andrés. "Kids there, a whole generation of them, had never seen an operational swing set or seesaw," he says. "They didn't know what a playground was."

As luck would have it, Irwin was working for NASA at the Marshall Center -- and Alabama already had a working relationship with Guatemala. The state participates in the Partners of the Americas program, founded in the 1960s to improve western-hemisphere relations. With its support, and $7,000 in donated funds, Irwin teamed in early 2004 with Guatemalan craftsman Tito Chi, who came to Alabama courtesy of the Partners program to study playground designs. Their primary influence was the "Kids Kingdom" park in Madison, Ala., designed by Leathers & Associates of Ithaca, N.Y., which partners with communities to deliver playgrounds custom-designed and built mostly by local volunteers.

Irwin's team purchased the necessary tools and durable plastic playground components in Huntsville. Then, retired Marshall Center engineer Homer Wilson, who takes Christmas gifts to children in Guatemala as part of the Partners program, volunteered to drive the load down as part of his annual pilgrimage -- a roughly 2,000-mile trip in both directions.

Over Christmas 2004, Irwin, his wife and their two daughters flew to San Andrés to oversee the project. Scores of volunteers came from nearby communities. They cut manchiche wood, many times more durable than oak, from a nearby sustainable forest plantation. They raised the timbers and assembled the various pieces: slides, swings, monkey bars and the rest.

Before the playground was even finished, the workers were mobbed by some 2,000 children eager to test it themselves.

"There's nothing else like the sound of kids on a playground," Irwin says. "They sound exactly the same no matter where you go. I love that sound. It's universal."

Today, the Carlos Soza Manzanero Community Playground -- named for one of Irwin's project partners and mentors who succumbed to cancer in 2003 -- serves more than 4,000 children from the clustered communities around San Andrés. The park has been reborn as a result, with foliage carefully pruned, vendors selling cool treats to playful frolickers, and electric lights running that allow kids to play during the cooler evening hours.

It has become such a popular community feature that numerous other villages have approached Irwin about similar efforts -- requests that suit Irwin just fine. He and his partners plan to build six more playgrounds in 2006, spreading them out across Guatemala to serve as many children as possible. Together with Leathers & Associates, they also plan to undertake construction of a massive playground in Park Omar, a sprawling city park in Panama City, Panama. The two-week job likely will involve several thousand volunteers, Irwin says, making it one of the largest local construction projects ever undertaken. Irwin says he'll squeeze that one in when it's feasible during his busy NASA schedule next year.

So how does one person find the time to do so much? "I make time for the things I love," Irwin says, smiling.

For more information about the SERVIR system, please visit:

For more information about the non-profit Partners of the Americas program, please visit:

For more information about Leathers & Associates, please visit:

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