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NASA's Robert Simmon on Transforming Science Into Art

The art director translates complex satellite data into stunning images of Earth

Blue Marble
(NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Some of the most stunning and well-known images to come out of NASA in recent years - including the Blue Marble image of Earth that was the default shot on countless new iPhone screens - were created by a group of six people working in a government office in Maryland. At the helm is Robert Simmon. He's the art director for the Earth Observatory, the NASA website that communicates the agency's Earth science research to the public. The EO takes data about climate and the environment from NASA satellites, research and climate models and transforms it into images and animation that non-scientists can understand. His images often inspire wonder and awe.

SKYE spoke with Simmon about his work, visualizing our planet from space and the breadth of his images' impact.

Robert Simmon, Blue Marble, NASASKYE: So what, exactly, do you do?

Basically, we've learned how to use data and turn those into images. Depending on the data set -- because some are much easier to use than others -- the process is: You find out about some interesting topic and go and get the raw data. Data comes in a few different flavors. The easiest to explain is true-color imagery, which is like the red, green and blue channels in a digital photograph. This data comes from satellites. It's the same idea with false-color images, except that one or more of the channels may be from wavelengths invisible to human eyes, like infrared. The second type of data is measurements. We'll also make charts, which could represent data from satellites, models or direct measurements from instruments on the ground, a plane or a weather balloon.

Working from the raw data is significant because scientists are usually making images for their peers, not broader audiences, and they're trained in science, not graphic design or data visualization. We try to make imagery that appeals to, and is understandable by, non-experts.

We'll first process the data in a way so that it can be read by software like Illustrator and Photoshop and then we do the finish, polish layer. The little final touches make something a really striking, attention-grabbing image that people can really resonate with.

How do you decide which ideas and information to present?

By basically keeping our ears and eyes open. One of the really important things about our team is that we are in a science group. We are not in a communications or public affairs group. We're interacting everyday with scientists, and, literally, can do the whole water cooler thing or hear a conversation across the hall and say, "Hey that's really interesting. Tell me more about it -- and do you have any data that we could use?" There is that sort of spontaneous day-to-day interaction. There's also watching news media.

China Smog[A few weeks ago] the Washington Post had a story about air pollution in Beijing, and the next day they had another story. On Monday morning, I came in and said we were going to go look at the data from Beijing and see what we can do to tell this story. So I went back, got an image from that morning, got an image from a week before, and we had a comparison between a relatively good air-quality day and this historically bad air quality.

Other times, we'll actually have scientists approach us and say, "Hey I've got this really interesting idea; can you help me present it?" If there's a new mission or new data product, we'll start working on that early and work with the scientists to explain the mission, show it off, explain how it works and what science we're going to learn from it.

We have a weekly meeting where we'll sort of toss ideas around. Sometimes we just go in and literally browse through existing imagery and see if there's anything that's interesting. Is there anything that captures a place that has some really cool geology or some funky thing going on with a cloud formation? We try to find the stuff that looks interesting to us and hope that it's what people outside of NASA, who are not necessarily scientists, will also be interested in and just think are cool.

Do you consider yourself to be a storyteller?

Yes. As a group, I think we all consider ourselves to be storytellers. The writers and the developers and the designers. It's a group of about six people, so it's not a huge group, and we all do a little bit of everything. We actually take a lot of pride in the fact that we tell stories and aren't just giving people a list of facts. There is decent scientific evidence that people remember stories much better than they do other things, so it is a much more effective way of communicating.

Your background is mostly in engineering, but creating these images seems almost like artwork. Did you have any experience studying art before you got to NASA?

I don't have any formal training in either art or design, but essentially was self-taught from going to art museums -- living in DC, they're all free -- and learning to appreciate the visual side of things. Then, having a good science background from an engineering degree meant that I could understand scientists. I was in this position where I'm not a scientist and not an artist, but can understand both worlds. And I think that -- this is a generalization and obviously not entirely true -- there are a lot of scientists that are uncomfortable with art and a lot of artists who are uncomfortable with science. Being squarely in the middle is pretty much perfect for what I do. I'm just trying to present information as clearly as possible: information that can be very complex, as well as information that is very relevant and, in some ways, controversial.

What do you think makes these images of Earth taken from space so compelling?

I think, innately, it's cool. People like it because it's an unfamiliar view of something that's familiar. It's sort of like flying in an airplane, but better. I'm definitely one of the people who likes the window seat. Not everybody does. But I sit there with my nose to the window. I try to make images that match my own mental picture of what I would expect, which makes things easier to understand. If a person glances at an image and it's baffling or weird, I don't think they're necessarily going to keep looking at it. They'll look at it once and say, "Oh yeah, whatever, NASA threw out another image," versus, "Hey, I can sort of understand what that is." Or even, "I can see my house from there." That's the standard joke, but it's the common thread with every one of the global images.

What do you love most about your job?

The most exciting thing is seeing something that nobody else has ever seen before. The next best part is when I actually finish a graphic and get it to a point where I'm happy with it and know that people are going to be able to see things in a new way. Getting a tricky data set that either was hard to read or was difficult to present for whatever reason and actually coming up with a good solution is really, really satisfying.

What's the most challenging part?

Just reading the data is such a huge pain in a lot of cases. Another extremely challenging part is when you have a scientist who is set in his or her ways as to how they want the data to be presented, when you know that it's not the best way to do it. Trying to convince them that, no, I'm not just doing this because I think it looks nice, I'm doing it because my knowledge of human perception tells me that this other way is actually going to be more clear to the audience that you're trying to reach. If you are an expert in the field, you often forget how long it took you to become an expert and the steps along the way. Nobody is born a scientist. They're actually dealing with these extremely complex concepts that rely on multiple levels of knowledge. I try to figure out how to distill the concepts down for the person who is interested in a topic, but doesn't necessarily have all that background information. Trying to explain that to the scientist who is used to communicating with peers at a scientific conference can be extremely challenging and frustrating.

Seeing how much bad presentation is out there, and watching it get posted on the NASA homepage, and going, "It could be so much better and it wouldn't even be that hard." But nobody has put the time or the thought into doing it. That's really frustrating.

NASA, Blue MarbleThe Blue Marble images are perhaps the most well-known you've worked on. How did those come to be?

That was almost entirely born out of the fact that it was something we needed. I work for NASA and I do Earth science, so pictures of Earth from space are an essential ingredient. The data that we get all comes in these small chunks -- data about a particular place at a particular time. Although the scales vary up to most of the hemisphere, there was no way that we could get a global view. At the time, there was a relatively new satellite called Terra and sensor called MODIS, and for the first time ever, it was taking true-color imagery -- so, photograph-like imagery -- of the entire planet. It didn't do it all at once. It did it over a period of two days, but we had the opportunity to do a color picture of the entire Earth's surface for the first time. The original Apollo 17 Blue Marble photo showed only a single perspective.

The astronauts that I have talked to have all pretty much said, "Going to space is a transformative moment. Looking at the Earth from above and seeing the world without boundaries, and looking at human habitation and seeing how much of the Earth is inhabited, is really profound even if you're prepared for it." Which is something that I haven't done. I wanted to bring that concept across as well as I could.

This was unprecedented, as far as being a realistic picture of the entire Earth surface, and because it was being put out by NASA as free data, people could use it for whatever they wanted.

Why do you think that particular image struck a chord with people?

On a very banal level, its because it's not copyrighted -- it's free and anybody can use it and reuse it however they want. Putting things out in the public domain means that they can be reused in ways I never thought of, whereas if it were something I were working on for a commercial imaging company, it would be used once or twice at an extraordinarily high cost and that would probably be about it. The other reason is, I'm pretty sure that it was the first semi-realistic hemispheric view of the Earth since Apollo. Everyone almost everyone is familiar with the Apollo images, but there are very few that show the entire sunlit side of the Earth.

While you were creating it, did you have any idea how widespread the impact of that image would be?

Nope. I just thought, "Hey, this is really cool!" It was fun to work on, and I was happy with the results, but the focus was really on the base maps, which I did maybe 2 or 3 percent of the work on.

iPhone Blue MarbleWere you surprised when it appeared on home screens of the iPhone?

I had no idea. I bought one the day after they first came out. ... I literally bought it, took it home, plugged it in, and the first thing that happens is [the Blue Marble image] pops up on the screen and it says to plug this into iTunes. I'm not sure what I actually said, but I'm sure it involved several profanities. I thought it was awesome. I never did email Steve Jobs, which I totally should have done. But I would have had no idea what to say. It was really cool, and to this day, when people ask what I do, I can say, "Oh, I do this."

This year, you created a series of images of the Earth at night that was called "Black Marble." What was the inspiration for that?

When NASA and NOAA launched a satellite called Sumi NPP, one of its capabilities was that it was a much better nighttime detector -- an imager, essentially a camera, that could view extremely dim light sources and extremely bright light sources at the same time. The other sensor was low resolution. It could only see 64 different levels of light; if it was too dark, it would be black, and if it was too bright, it would be white. It was an overexposed and underexposed photograph simultaneously. The new ones can do the full spectrum of brightness. So, it's this very high-quality data set. That's a huge improvement over what we had done earlier.

NASA, Black MarbleWe knew that we were getting the new data and we knew that we wanted to make a splash with the presentation. So, we thought, OK, let's get the data when it comes out and let's try and make an improved view. Let's try and do a nighttime render to go along with the newer daytime renders that we had been doing. And it was all grunt work from there. Let's get the data. What format is it going to be? How can we read it? How can we translate it into something that we can use? Oh wait, the sensor is far too good, so we need to figure out a way to take out the light from the aurora and take out the starlight that is being reflected on the snow in mountain ranges or in North Dakota or whatever. By far, the hardest part of this project was going in by hand, and wherever there was light contamination from any source, basically blending in the older data.

It was again a case of, let's promote this data set and the best way to do that is by creating a realistic global image. It's a project that I wanted to tackle for a long time, but because we also have that day-to-day operation, sometimes it's difficult to find enough time all at once to get an interesting thing done unless you have a deadline or a press conference or some milestone that makes it realistic to say, "Hey you guys can take care of 95 percent of my job, and I'm going to be focus on this 5 percent for the next three weeks."

Many of the Earth Observatory's images reveal the ways in which the Earth and its climate are changing. How important is illustrating climate change in your work? And how big of an effect do you think the EO has on the public's understanding of climate change?

That is a major factor of what we do. And that is a reflection of NASA's research efforts. I hope people can look at our site and get a sense of the quality of the research. It is not a small group of scientists who are collaborating to raise grant money. It is a very large group of scientists that is doing huge variety of research, looking at all different facets of the Earth. And the picture that is coming out of all that research is that humanity is having a pretty big impact on the planet. No matter what you think of it, or you think of any possible solutions at this point, it's pretty incontrovertible that it's happening. We are very conscious about sticking to the state of the art of scientific understanding. If there is a controversy, we focus on laying out what it is. And scientific controversy is not political controversy. There are disagreements between scientists over different aspects of this stuff. People outside the field will consider a lot of it very minor, but if it's your entire field, if it's your entire research area, little changes mean a lot. That's something that I would love to do more of -- delving into some of the nitty-gritty of this. Right now we don't have enough people to do it, but I think there are some really good stories to be told there.

I have no idea how effective we are, but again, we try to make sure that we are communicating what is known right now. We try to make all of our resources available so other people can tell their story with our information.

SKYE: Thanks, Robert.

Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RELATED ON SKYE: Simmon Tells the Stories Behind 13 Iconic Images


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Fantastico this image.

April 08 2013 at 12:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Wait--hold the presses! I thought that NASA was huffing and puffing about the earth's no longer looking like a "big blue marble" and was looking increasingly greyish with every decade due to pollution and global warming. Could it be that these photos are (gasp!) photoshopped? Oh, say it isn't so!

April 07 2013 at 11:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"looks like such a friendly place, won't the aliens be surprised."

April 07 2013 at 11:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Hal Hewitt

Awesome: Really

April 07 2013 at 8:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
T. Blyth

This brings back amazing memories for me. My father was one of the NASA scientist that developed LANDSAT technology for NASA. We lived in Houston in the 1960's and he would brief and de-brief the astronauts about what pictures to take! Thanks for this great article.

April 07 2013 at 6:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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