NASA and USAID pioneer the use of space technologies for development efforts

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden speaks at the launch of SERVIR in Bangkok, Thailand. As NASA works towards Mars exploration and the development community works to end extreme poverty by 2030, the examples of — and opportunities for — collaboration between the space industry and the development sector are taking off. Photo by: Richard Nyberg / CC BY-NC

The launch pad for SERVIR, a joint development initiative of the United States Agency for International Development and National Aeronautics and Space Administration, lies in the jungle.

Dan Irwin used an old GPS to do mapping work for Conservation International in Guatemala, until he ran into a NASA archaeologist who showed him the insights that images from space could offer.

For several years, he would pack a slide projector on a mule and go from village to village with this satellite imagery of deforestation, until he took a job at the Marshall Space Flight Center 17 years ago.

As the global development community mobilizes around accomplishing the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, NASA has also set its sights on that decade, with its Journey to Mars aiming to get humans to the red planet in the 2030s. And as both organizations work towards monumental goals, the examples of — and opportunities for — collaboration between the space industry and the development sector are taking off.

Connecting space to village

Irwin’s move to NASA would help catalyze cooperation between the space scientists and development practitioners.

“I would walk down the hallways and talk with the most unbelievable scientists doing the most amazing research,” Irwin said of his early days with NASA. “I realized there was a gap between the great science so many people were doing and the real needs in the developing world.”

That observation led eventually to the launch of SERVIR, which leverages data from space to improve environmental decision-making in 30 developing countries. Spanish for “to serve,” SERVIR is funded jointly by NASA and USAID and aims to “connect space to village.” It works in partnership with a network of offices around the world that have a mandate to serve their member countries and have the technical capacity to use this information to manage climate risks and land use. 

“How do we take all these zillions of bits of scientific data, how do we turn that into information that local decisionmakers, that aid workers, can access easily to help the people in those areas become more resilient to these effects of climate change?” Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist, said at Devex World.

The first SERVIR hub was launched in Panama in 2005. SERVIR currently operates in four hubs: the East and Southern Africa hub at the Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development in Nairobi, Kenya; the Mekong hub at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center in Bangkok, Thailand; the Himalaya hub at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu, Nepal; and most recently, the West Africa hub at the AGRHYMET regional center in Niamey, Niger.

“Space technology helps us determine those information gaps we can fill that can spur decision making and change the way we do things today and make our communities better prepared for the future,” said Robinson Mugo, who is chief party for the SERVIR Eastern and Southern Africa hub.

Mugo and a team of hydrologists under SERVIR have used data from the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, a collaboration between NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, to study rainfall in order to improve local flood forecasts in Kenya to help farmers protect their crops.

SERVIR is also prioritizing training development partners so they can better incorporate geospatial information into their decisionmaking.

The Journey to Mars presents new opportunities for the space industry and development sector to work together, Ellen Stofan, chief scientist of NASA, tells Devex.

“This is a unique program in that it combines a lot of science with a lot of hands on development activities and that requires a really wide range of skills,” said Jenny Frankel-Reed, a senior climate change specialist at USAID and the agency’s SERVIR lead.

Partners, such as the Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development, who can reach out to stakeholders, facilitate a dialogue “and make sure they are part of the process not just recipients of the tools,” are particularly important, she said.

A team of 20 people at the Marshall Space Flight Center work to support SERVIR and each of the hubs have a point person at the local USAID mission. But the hubs also come together for virtual and in person learning and collaboration around four key areas: land cover, food security and agriculture, weather and climate, and water and water related disasters.

Last year they mobilized a response that called on SERVIR hubs to help following the earthquake in Nepal. The group worked to identify and task satellites to collect images, processed them and shared them with the Nepalese government, which used them to pinpoint landslides and hazards as well as assess the extent of damage as they directed rapid response efforts.

Working in the extremes

SERVIR has given way to other initiatives linking NASA with partners who can use data from space here on earth. For example, NASA’s Planetary Sustainability initiative aims to leverage public-private partnerships to address current and future challenges like renewable energy generation and carbon dioxide sequestration.

“The whole idea is to take some of the advancements we have in space and apply it to planet earth so we enable a more sustainable planet earth,” said Daniel Rasky, chief of the Space Portal at the NASA Research Park in Moffett Field, California.

While his office is mainly focused on public-private partnerships with “nontraditional space companies,” he told Devex he is in preliminary talks with the United Nations about NASA technologies that might promote sustainable development.

Existing examples of terrestrial implications for extraterrestrial inventions include radar technology developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that can sense the heartbeat of humans buried under piles of rubble. It saved lives following the earthquake in Nepal last year. Water purification technology developed for the International Space Station has helped aid and disaster relief organizations provide drinkable water from Chiapas, Mexico, to Balakot, Pakistan.

The recent D3 Innovation Summit, an interagency initiative between USAID, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Department of Defense, looked at applications for emerging technologies in diplomacy, defense, and development. The audience favorite was a proposal to use space-based solar technologies for renewable energy.

Entrepreneurs already working on projects at this intersection of space and development include Dara Dotz, the founder of Field Ready, an organization that aims to transform humanitarian aid through “hyperlocal digital manufacturing.” Drawing connections between the work she has done on 3D printing from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to the International Space Station, she said she works in the extremes.

"When you look at the International Space Station, or long distance space missions, people are isolated," she told Devex. "It's the same with post disaster zones. It's very dangerous. It's very expensive. And it takes a long time to get supplies there."

Her work demonstrates the two-way technology transfer at the intersection of driving global development and pioneering deep space. Both contexts demand approaches and products that draw on limited resources and do not require a lot of maintenance.

From moonshots to Mars shots

As SERVIR has evolved over the past decade, its mission architecture offers valuable insights into how to make partnerships between outer space and international development mutually beneficial. NASA provides USAID data in places that need it and USAID provides NASA with a way to use its data for societal benefit. One key shift has been to begin with the needs of the end user then develop products and services along with the hubs, Irwin said.

“When we started our work on flood modeling and forecasting in East Africa, it was basically a NASA in-house project, and we thought we would go to different ministries and share the information with them,” he told Devex. “But people want to feel like participants. So we backed up the whole thing and did a reset and worked with the ministries and with our hubs and it really became this collaborative codevelopment.”

SERVIR also makes grants to engage new actors including universities, local governments, and nongovernmental organizations who want to use the data. One of those grants went to Susan Malaso, a former intern at the Kenya hub who developed a product that applied GIS and remote sensing to help farmers map the risk of frost, which is now being used by insurance companies in Kenya.

If humans are to become an interplanetary species, it will require developing new water purification systems, growing crops with little water and few nutrients, and coming up with shelf stable food and drugs with minimal packaging, Stofan told Devex.

“World hunger, water availability around this planet, getting humans to the surface of Mars. Those are all really tough challenges that don’t have an easy solution,” Stofan said. Particularly because these out-of-this-world challenges have a lot in common with a range of needs here on earth, NASA will look to partners for collaboration.

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About the author

  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.