Central America Trip

NASA Earth Science R&D

The purpose of the trip to Central America was to see first-hand the practical applications of NASA’s Earth science research and development. In Guatemala, we were introduced to how NASA’s remote sensing leads to identification of archaeological sites. In Panama, we toured SERVIR (more later) — a project that involves the only regional network in the world dedicated to environmental management.

I was accompanied by Woody Turner, Program Scientist, Earth Science Division, Science Mission Directorate, whose knowledge of NASA’s Earth science program provided me with a deeper understanding and appreciation of what I saw. NASA’s archaeologist Dr. Tom Sever, SERVIR Project Manager Dr. Daniel Irwin, and Boston University Assistant Professor of Archaeology Dr. Bill Saturno (who is currently on detail to Marshall Space Flight Center) were on the trip as well. The work of these three men, all based at Marshall Space Flight Center, is truly inspirational. Their work is important in many dimensions — from NASA to the world and from our generation to all future generations of human beings. As usual, I received great support from the Office of External Relations through their Deputy Assistant Administrator Al Condes and NASA’s Latin America Desk Officer, Michael Moore. And thanks to my executive assistant Kathryn Manuel who goes above and beyond every day and puts up with me. Bill Ingalls, NASA photographer, was with us and he is an incredible photographer and a real joy to be around.


Walking in the dense Guatemalan jungle

One of the NASA scientists said that we were in the “wild west” of Guatemala when we landed in Flores, Guatemala last week (the week of December 10, 2007). After seeing the dense jungle and the wide variety of animals along and in the roadway (dogs, horses, chickens, and pigs), I definitely had to agree. Everyone I met was so open and friendly and very welcoming of visitors from NASA.  

In Guatemala we left the Flores airport on a bus with members of the National Police, complete with machine guns, behind us in a truck. We traveled close to an hour to reach the place where we stayed while in Guatemala. We flew via helicopter from our remote site to an even more remote site called San Bartolo, with Bill Saturno (the clearing for the helicopter where we landed was small, so we had to descend straight vertical).  Then we hiked through the jungle for about 15 minutes to reach the Maya archaeological site at San Bartolo. 

Bill Saturno is an archaeologist specializing in ancient Maya civilization, New World  archaeology, and remote sensing. In March 2001, while exploring in northeastern Guatemala, he found the remote archaeological site of San Bartolo and the oldest intact murals ever found in the Maya world. He came close to death, from dehydration, on that journey. Excavations are ongoing at San Bartolo. When the excavation team is up and running, there are approximately 120 people in camp.

After finding San Bartolo, Bill began working with Tom Sever and Dan Irwin at NASA. He noticed in some imagery acquired from NASA that the tree cover over Maya sites, known to him, tended to have a slightly different color in the satellite data than the surrounding vegetation. Tom Sever inspected the data and found a similar color change  in the tree canopies above other known sites. Working together, Sever, Saturno, and Irwin confirmed that Maya sites could be identified from space with satellite imagery because the vegetation had a different color signature where the Mayans had cleared land and laid down limestone for their buildings and plazas — one of the scientists had a depiction of what the sites would really have looked like at the time — it would have been all cleared, not a temple in the jungle as it is presently.


In the above photo you can see the small opening (hole) between Bill Saturno and me that we used to enter the main part of the temple. This site is sealed and guarded when the excavation team is not on-site. It was absolutely amazing to view the murals from 100 B.C. about the Mayan story of creation. These murals display early Maya writing, implying that the Mayans had developed a writing system centuries earlier than previously thought.

These early wall paintings were buried within a pyramidal structure.  Looters had previously tunneled through major parts of the temple.  Tunneling deeper into the structure by scientific excavations has since led to the discovery of older parts, some dating back to 400 B.C.

Early Maya mural Third early Maya mural Second early Maya mural

Demarcation Between Mexico and Guatemala

In the early 1990’s, images such as the one above, which clearly shows significant deforestation in Mexico on the border between Mexico and Guatemala, led leaders in the region to join together to establish the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.  This Corridor links hundreds of protected areas stretching from Mexico to Colombia.  Located within this protected Corridor in northern Guatemala are the ruins of the Maya city Tikal.

Mexico and Guatemala border Tikal temple view
Maya ruin at Tikal Tikal Maya chamber

The Maya ruins at Tikal are located in a dense jungle preserve that serves as the home for an incredible diversity of plants and animals.  My visit to the excavated ruins at Tikal was a great complement to my visit earlier in the day to the San Bartolo site. My brief visit to Tikal also provided an excellent opportunity to better understand Maya culture and the significant impact that the Mayans had on their surrounding environment. The magnificent temples served as a backdrop for a rebel base in the Star Wars movie. What you probably don’t realize from this photo is that Bill and I were close to the edge (behind Bill, not me) of a sheer drop that would have killed anyone who fell.

Dropoff at Tikal ruin Tom Sever briefing

Tom Sever has done extensive field work in the region and through his research using NASA remote sensing data, a large number of  Mayan sites have been identified beneath a rain forest canopy in the Peten area of Guatemala, which is considered the Maya civilization’s heartland.  Also through Tom’s studies, information was revealed that suggested a civilization may have existed in the subtropical Peruvian jungles prior to that of the Incas.  Overall, my trip to Guatemala was spectacular and provided an opportunity to see how NASA’s remote sensing data were used to locate and interpret the remains of the  ancient Maya civilization, and how climate science offers insights into that civilization’s rise and fall. 

We flew Wednesday morning to Guatemala City and we met with scientists, officials, and the U.S. Ambassador James M. Derham.  Later that day, we flew from Guatemala to Panama.


On Thursday, we visited the SERVIR operations facility.  SERVIR (both a Spanish acronym and also a Spanish verb meaning “to serve”) is a regional visualization and monitoring system for Mesoamerica that integrates satellite and other geospatial data for improved scientific knowledge and decision making.  Among other things, SERVIR is used to monitor and forecast ecological changes and severe events such as forest fires, red tides, and tropical storms.  SERVIR addresses the nine societal benefit areas of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS): disasters, ecosystems, biodiversity, weather, water, climate, health, agriculture, and energy.  Eight countries in the region are members of this network and I believe it brings countries together in a unique way.  By viewing this region from space it is clear that land management decisions impact not just that country, but the entire region.

Ambassador DerhamSERVIR-implementing agencies include NASA, the Water Center for the Humid Tropics and Latin America and the Caribbean or CATHALAC, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Central American Commission for Environment and Development or CCAD, the World Bank, the Nature Conservancy, and the United Nations Environmental Programme.  A test bed and rapid prototyping SERVIR facility is managed by Marshall Space Flight Center.  There is great potential to use this network as a model for other parts of the world.  Discussions are already underway to potentially use this model in the eastern part of Africa (maybe as many as 14 countries).   Information about SERVIR can be found at: http://www.servir.net/

  Dan Irwin is the NASA Project Director for SERVIR.  A goal of Dan’s work is to show how NASA data could be used for forest conservation and development throughout the tropics.  Dan also has helped develop small businesses in Central American villages to provide economic alternatives to tropical rainforest slash-and-burn agriculture.  He has built a children’s library and several playgrounds in rural Guatemalan villages.  And on this trip, he brought down twenty bags of clothes and toys for some of the more needy in Guatemala. 


Panama CanalAfter SERVIR, we met with the U.S. Ambassador to Panama, William A. Eaton, as well as Panamanian government officials and members of the university community right next to the Panama Canal.

While in Panama, I was interviewed by Ms. Luz Maria Noli, the “Barbara Walters of Panama.”  She is one of the most extroverted people I have ever met and a real kick to be around. Al Condes was carrying my portfolio because I had to leave it while being interviewed.  Luz saw that and said to me, “I am older than you and I need him to carry my things around.” So, of course, I told her she could have Al.

We flew back late Thursday night. This was one of the most personally fulfilling trips I have taken. The NASA scientists whose work benefits this region are selfless and inspirational. It is my honor to work with such fine individuals.

Budget Update

NASA is still in formulation with the White House on the President’s budget for FY 2009. The program direction and budget numbers are embargoed until the President’s budget is released in early February.
Regarding the FY 2008 budget, the House and Senate, as of December 19, adopted an FY 2008 omnibus appropriation for 11 domestic appropriations bills including NASA’s, clearing the measure for the President.  In the interim, the House and Senate have adopted an extension to the FY 2008 Continuing Resolution through December 31, allowing time for the omnibus appropriation to be presented to the President for his consideration. I will update you in future postings on the status of the FY 2008 bill.