The Greatest Mission

David Seal is guest-blogging at the Planetary Society Blog, and a coupla days ago he blogged about a mission close to my heart in the post entitled The Greatest Mission You’ve Never Heard About. [via Bad Astronomy] Except that readers of this blog have heard about it. A few times: The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (or SRTM). Or, how we mapped the world in 11 days from the space shuttle.

He’s got some cool stuff about the boom used for the mission:

Did I really say sixty-meter boom? Extending out from the Shuttle? Sticking out of the payload bay. Starts in a can, goes out 200 feet, Shuttle flies around for ten days, it doesn’t break and wrap around the orbiter, then it fits nicely back in the can. Really? Absolutely!

There’s more. Pictures. slinky analogies. Jaw-dropping orbit calculations. Go read it. But first….

Why is this mission close to my heart? Well, five years ago, when I met the man ablogymously referred to in these parts as Doc M, he told me about the project he was working on– he said it was something about mapping the earth.

Gasp! Really? (I was thinking of my desktop picture, which, at that time, was a map of the earth at night. From this APOD image.) Like satellite imagery?

No, not satellite, he replied. This is radar that takes a kind of stereo image and produces a topographic map.

Oh, is that like DEMs? I asked.

Silence. Pause. Disbelief. On his part. Who is this woman?! He had been skating toward the edge of the Get To Know You conversation, where What Do You Do? meets Eyes Glazed Over immediately followed by a vacant Uh Huh, Interesting… and change of subject.

But no. I asked him about DEMs. Digital Elevation Models. (What you get when you create a digital Topo map).

Yes, he replied (a little incredulously). Exactly like DEMs. How do you know what DEMs are?

Well, I answered, I wrote a how-to book about a 3D scenic landscape app that makes mountains from fractal geometry. The app can also import DEMs to make mountains.

Oh! he replied. And we continued talking. For a good long time….

It’s the greatest mission because that conversation continues, five years later.

So, well, yes, the mission Doc M worked on at the time was SRTM, Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. He was responsible for the algorithms that knit together individual shuttle-orbit-path ribbons of elevation data into a continuous continent-wide chunk of elevation data. And did such a bang-up job of it that he got an award, which involved a trip to Kennedy Space Center, and I got to go along with. And blogged it, and stuff.

So, my dear blog readers, this is the greatest mission because, really, if it weren’t for SRTM, I don’t think I’d’ve become a blogger of space stuff. And if you come here to read about space stuff, well, you can thank SRTM.

But wait! There’s More!

David Seal’s post concludes with a bullet list of all the cool stuff that can be done with that wicked-ass elevation data set from SRTM. Including this:

[You can] Prevent airplanes from crashing into mountains. (Just dial up and find how many accidents were due to “flying into high ground” – and imagine a day soon when airplanes will all have topo maps.)

So, one fine evening, my brother comes to visit, He’s the well-travelled pilot of air force cargo planes, known in these blog parts as the Google-challenged bro-ski. He brought along a fellow pilot friend, and together with Doc M, we went out to dinner. The topic of SRTM came up. Bro-ski says, “Dude! We got a new mapping flight navigation system in our planes!” More discussion. Did the new maps come from your work? Well, yes, SRTM was sponsored by the Defense Department, so you’d think that one benefit would be to put that info into air force planes. Bro-ski named an airport in a faraway country, and said that the flight approach was “pretty gnarly.” He said it’s pretty cool to know someone who helped put together the stuff that went into his new flight navigation systems; he’d certainly tell all his buddies.

It’s the Greatest Mission because it’s made my brother and lots and lots of air force pilots safer. (and pilots of commercial craft? Don’t know, there.)

Okay, now that you’ve read my various umpteen degrees of separation from the Greatest Mission, go read what David Seal has to say about it.

6 responses to “The Greatest Mission”

  1. alwin

    Silence. Pause. Disbelief. On his part. Who is this woman?! He had been skating toward the edge of the Get To Know You conversation, where What Do You Do? meets Eyes Glazed Over immediately followed by a vacant Uh Huh, Interesting… and change of subject.

    We are all strangers to each other, even after years together. Ain’t it grand?

  2. dan

    This is such a delightful post, Susan!

  3. Phil Plait, aka The Bad Astronomer

    Yay! I’m glad you found that post. I like it when smart people make other peoples’ lives better, safer, and easier.

  4. Hal

    Thanks for the pointer to David Seal and Bad Astronomy.


  5. Bro-ski

    In our plane, all the Digi-Elevation Model datapoints are in a system that the engineers at Boeing installed called the TAWS… that’s the acronym for Terrain Altitude Warning System, which displays a moving map of the terrain when selected and gives aural warnings like “obstacle left” “obstacle right” and the one you don’t wanna hear “Terrain, fly up” in a nice female-bot voice.

    Yeah, VERY NICE to have onboard. Even when we go into places where the bad guys might be shooting at us, the biggest threat to our safe flying operation is the ground. Hopefully this “op-tech” is making its way into civilian operators hands as CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) has long been a safety emphasis item for flyers of every kind…

  6. Katrina

    This reminds me of my favorite teaching assignment for a computer training company. Well, actually, my two favorite assignments, which are related. The first one came when I had a full-day session with an Air Force officer (he was out of uniform, so I’m not sure of his rank). He was commanding officer for a group of people who took photos of airfields from around the world and labeled them for pilots who were going to fly into those airfields — so he came in for a one-on-one session with me to learn how to use “actions” in Photoshop to streamline the group’s processes.

    A few months later, he hired me (through the computer training company) to come onto the Air Force base and train his group in Photoshop (especially actions); I spent two days with those Air Force officers and thoroughly enjoyed it — a great, fun bunch of people.