William Pecora and the birth of civil Earth observation

18 November 2017

The US Geological Survey and NASA annually present the William T. Pecora Award to “individuals or teams using satellite or aerial remote sensing that make outstanding contributions toward understanding the Earth, educating the next generation of scientists, informing decision makers or supporting natural or human-induced disaster response”.

Indeed, it is entirely fitting that Dr Pecora be remembered in this way. A geologist, former director of the USGS and Department of the Interior under secretary, Pecora is described by the USGS as a “motivating force” behind the establishment in 1966 of the Earth Resources Observation Satellite (EROS) programme, which ultimately led to the 1972 launch of the Earth Resources Technology Satellite – renamed Landsat.

William Thomas Pecora credit USGS

The 1966 announcement of the EROS programme, with Pecora as its head, sounds like a manifesto for the Earth observation community. Then-Interior secretary Stewart Udall promised “an opportunity to collect valuable resource data and use it to improve the quality of our environment”.

Udall went on to note: “Facts on the distribution of needed minerals, our water supplies and the extent of water pollution, agricultural crops and forests, and human habitations, can be obtained on a global basis, and used for regional and continental long-range planning.”

Pecora added: “Although we are now gaining valuable information from existing satellites, none are capable of providing global coverage of the type required for successful resource allocation.

We visualize EROS as an evolutionary program, beginning with television cameras flown in an orbit that will cover the entire surface of the earth repeatedly, under nearly-identical conditions of illumination.”

The anticipated cost of “the first EROS vehicles” was less than $20m, said Pecora, “far less than the cost of photographing the earth by conventional aerial means”. The availability of updated maps, he added, would save the American public “over $100 million annually”.

The EROS name lives on, now as the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science Centre in Sioux Falls, South Dakota – chosen, says the USGS, because it is “centrally located for receiving data as Landsat satellites passed over the United States”.