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“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. ”