The summer of 2011 has been a time of nostalgia and blessings-counting for much of the NASA family. The final flight of the Space Shuttle program has us remembering many triumphs, fallen heroes, and signature moments. It also has us thinking about the next giant leaps for humanity and for Earth science.
In the meantime, there is an actual mission going on. ... In this astronaut photograph, the Space Shuttle Atlantis approaches the International Space Station for docking for the last time on July 10, 2011. Part of a Russian Progress spacecraft, also docked to the station, pokes into the upper foreground. Beneath them all lie the teal-colored shallows around the Bahamas.
It's easy to get caught up in the hardware and the engineering of the shuttle; and why not, it's a cool machine. But a lot of science has been conducted on that low-earth-orbiting observatory, much of it with the human eye. Here is a description from our latest tribute to shuttle science:
For all of the novel and sophisticated technology that has been flown on the space shuttles, the most underrated instrument to fly in space is the human eye.
“Humans are smart, trainable sensors,” says Kam Lulla, former chief scientist for Earth observation in the Human Exploration Science Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Astronauts have unique sensing capabilities, including the knowledge to identify and interpret changes and features on the planet, and the ability to react to events and conditions—from changing the angle, width, or focus of a camera shot to adjusting for sunlight. “We take NASA’s astronauts, who are already very smart, accomplished people, and we work to make them Earth-smart. We train their minds for science in orbit.”
For most of the Space Shuttle program, each crew was trained to visually recognize 25 to 50 locations of interest to the Earth science community. Sometimes natural events added to the target list. Sometimes the astronaut’s eyes found beauty and surprises below.
“Photographs from the Space Shuttle are punctuated snapshots of distinct places on Earth,” says Cindy Evans, an Earth scientist and long-time trainer and ground-based guide to astronauts. “They are framed by a human eye and perspective, and they are accessible to anyone. These images speak to people.”
Read more in our newest photo story: Every Flight is a Mission to Planet Earth.