America's first woman astronaut discusses how JPL instruments and missions have helped revolutionize what we know about Earth.


I can’t believe it was 25 years ago since we launched, that seems almost impossible.
The memories to me are as if it were yesterday. When the space shuttle’s engines cut off, and you’re finally in space, floating over to the window, and that’s when I got my first view of Earth. I remember the first time that I looked towards the horizon it looked as if someone had taken a royal blue crayon and just traced along Earth’s horizon.

And then I realized that that blue line, that really thin royal blue line, was Earth’s atmosphere, and that was all there was of it.
And it’s so clear from that perspective how fragile our existence is. It makes you appreciate how important it is to take care of that atmosphere. On my second flight we carried a radar satellite made at JPL called then SIR-B – Shuttle Imaging Radar B. It was an early version of an instrument that JPL flew on the Space Shuttle many years later, SRTM, that did the first three dimensional detailed mapping of pretty much the entire surface of the Earth. And that’s just one example of the satellites that JPL has been associated with that has really revolutionized what we know about the Earth.

Everything from monitoring the winds along the surface of Earth, particularly over the ocean, to the temperature of the ocean surface. And in the future there will be even more sophisticated experiments giving us more detail on various aspects of our planet including atmospheric chemistry, amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; all of which are helping us build our knowledge so that we understand our planet and our impact on it more completely. In the 25 years since my first flight, we’ve learned a lot about the planet. A lot of that knowledge has come as a result of our presence in space. All you need to do is take a look at some of the photos taken 25 years ago and compare them to photographs being taken by astronauts today or satellites today. What you see are very visible changes. You can see mountains that used to be snow-covered that aren’t anymore.
You can see glaciers that have disappeared.

You see hurricanes that are more intense. You see these changes all around the globe. The key to global change is the word global. We’re seeing it everywhere around the planet, not just at the poles. There are some parts of the planet that are getting less water and are going to be more prone to drought. There are other parts of the planet that are measurably getting more water. They’re more prone to floods. It was technology that drove those changes. Our use of fuels, our ability to heat our homes and light our cities, has led to the increased CO2 in the atmosphere.

But I think that now technology offers us the opportunity to develop solutions. It’s the science and technology, as well as our own habits, that can really help us solve the problem that we’ve created for ourselves.
I’m optimistic that we’re going to be fine. We’ve caught onto the problem in time and now it’s just a matter of committing ourselves to the solutions…
… and the space program and space technology is going to be critical as we approach this challenge of the twenty-first century.
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