In two recent news stories, NASA has generated a world of good will and positive publicity about itself and its space exploration program. It would be an understatement to say their results have been both well-grounded and out of this world.
First, NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield created a vast following for himself online when he uploaded a video onto YouTube of him singing David Bowie’s classic Space Oddity while on a mission on the International Space Station (ISS).¹ As reported on the October 7, 2015 CBS Evening News broadcast, Hadfield will be releasing an album of 12 songs he wrote and performed in space, today on October 9. 2015. He also previously wrote a best-selling book entitled An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything (Little, Brown and Company, 2013). I highly recommend checking out his video, book and Twitter account @Cmdr_Hadfield.
What a remarkably accomplished career in addition to his becoming an unofficial good will ambassador for NASA.
The second story, further enhancing the agency’s reputation, concerns a very positive program affecting many lives that was reported in a most interesting article on Wired.com on September 28, 2015 entitled How NASA Data Can Save Lives From Space by Issie Lapowsky. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose some my own terrestrial questions.
According to a NASA administrator Charles Bolden, astronauts frequently look down at the Earth from space and realize that borders across the world are subjectively imposed by warfare or wealth. These dividing lines between nations seem to become less meaningful to them while they are in flight. Instead, the astronauts tend to look at the Earth and have a greater awareness everyone’s responsibilities to each other. Moreover, they wonder what they can possibly do when they return to make some sort of meaningful difference on the ground.
Bolden recently shared this experience with an audience at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington, DC, to explain the reasoning behind a decade-long partnership between NASA and USAID. (This latter is the US government agency responsible for the administration of US foreign aid.) At first, this would seem to be an unlikely joint operation between two government agencies that do not seem to have that much in common.
In fact, this combination provides “a unique perspective on the grave need that exists in so many places around the world”, and a special case where one agency sees it from space and the other one sees it on the ground.
They are joined together into a partnership known as SERVIR where NASA supplies “imagery, data, and analysis” to assist developing nations. They help these countries with forecasting and dealing “with natural disasters and the effects of climate change”.
Among others, SERVIR’s tools have produced the following representative results:
- Predicting floods in Bangladesh that gives citizens a total of eight days notice in order to make preparations that will save lives. This reduced the number to 17 during the last year’s monsoon season whereas previously it had been in the thousands.
- Predicting forest fires in the Himalayas.
- For central America, NASA created a map of ocean chlorophyll concentration that assisted public officials in identifying and improving shellfish testing in order to deal with “micro-algae outbreaks” responsible for causing significant health issues.
SERVIR currently operates in 30 countries. As a part of their network, there are regional hubs working with “local partners to implement the tools”. Last week it opened such a hub in Asia’s Mekong region. Both NASA and USAID are hopeful that the number of such hubs will continue to grow.
Google is also assisting with “life saving information from satellite imagery”. They are doing this by applying artificial intelligence (AI)² capabilities to Google Earth. This project is still in its preliminary stages.
- Should SERVIR reach out to the space agencies and humanitarian organizations of other countries to explore similar types of humanitarian joint ventures?
- Do the space agencies of other countries have similar partnerships with their own aid agencies?
- Would SERVIR benefit from partnerships with other US government agencies? Similarly, would it benefit from partnering with other humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGO)?
- Would SERVIR be the correct organization to provide assistance in global environmental issues? Take for example the report on the October 8, 2015 CBS Evening News network broadcast of the story about the bleaching of coral reefs around the world.
1. While Hatfield’s cover and Bowie’s original version of Space Oddity are most often associated in pop culture with space exploration, I would like to suggest another song that also captures this spirit and then truly electrifies it: Space Truckin’ by Deep Purple. This appeared on their Machine Head album which will be remembered for all eternity because it included the iconic Smoke on the Water. Nonetheless, Space Truckin‘ is, in my humble opinion, a far more propulsive tune than Space Oddity. Its infectious opening riff will instantly grab your attention while the rest of the song races away like a Saturn Rocket reaching for escape velocity. Furthermore, the musicianship on this recording is extraordinary. Pay close attention to Richie Blackmore’s scorching lead guitar and Ian Paice’s thundering drums. Come on, let’s go space truckin’!
2. These eight Subway Fold posts cover AI from a number of different perspectives involving a series of different applications and markets.