Press Release

Missouri Scientist Takes ‘Rocky’ Road to Improve Eyesight, Farming, Weather Analysis at NASA MSFC

By SpaceRef Editor
February 2, 2000
Filed under

Steve Roy

Media Relations Department

(256) 544-0034

RELEASE: 00-024

Dr. Doug Rickman’s journey to the frontiers of science started
because he wanted his big brother’s merit badge.

Rickman remembers as a young boy studying a photo of his Eagle Scout
brother. “He had his merit badge sash on, and there was a badge there that
was absolutely gorgeous,” Rickman recalls. It was the merit badge for
geology. “I said, ‘I like that. I want to do that.'”

Some 35 years later, Rickman holds a doctorate in geology, and his
work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., has reached
beyond rocks, into satellite imagery, improved eyesight and even the future
of farming.

Along the way, the Joplin, Mo., native has studied magnetic
resonance images of the human brain, directed software development for
weather analysis, used satellites to detect Colorado ore deposits, and
examined fish scales and turtle flippers. His work on the medical
applications of digital image processing even earned him induction into the
U.S. Space Foundation’s Space Technology Hall of Fame.

“I ended up doing all these seemingly unrelated things. And it’s a
long way from ‘rockology,'” he said. “But they actually all have a
fundamental straightforward relationship. They all deal with images.”

Rickman, 48, is one of the Marshall Center’s leading researchers in
remote sensing ñ the use of cameras and other technologies to examine
objects from great distances. Working at Marshall’s Global Hydrology and
Climate Center, he uses optical equipment like satellite photography to spur
new developments in other science fields. The self-described “mad scientist”
said remote sensing is not as far removed from geology as it may seem.
“Geologists have, for decades, been trained to use aerial photography,” he
said. “One could think of satellite imagery as a particular type of

Rickman recently returned to his geologist’s aerial photography
roots, refining the concept of “precision farming.” In traditional farming
operations, growers spread fertilizer and water uniformly over a field. With
precision farming, growers use data collected from air- or space-borne
sensors to analyze growth characteristics of areas just a few yards across.

“We can fly over an area and precisely map its plant quality and
soil makeup — including mineral variation and organic carbon content — in
approximately 6-foot increments,” Rickman said. Armed with this data,
farmers can improve crop health and yield by applying precise amounts of
seed, fertilizer and pesticides as needed.

Rickman’s remote sensing work also has led to improvements of a more
personal nature ñ the gift of sight for the legally blind.

Rickman was a lead researcher on LVES, a low-vision enhancement
system developed in the early 1990s by NASA and Johns Hopkins University in
Baltimore. “Most legally blind people still retain some sight. But they
cannot function normally with that limited sight,” he said. “In many cases,
our system lets them lead a somewhat normal life.”

Eyeglasses cannot intensify the brightness of what a person can see,
only the clarity. The new system “cures” both. A blind person wears a
lightweight headset with mounted video cameras. The cameras feed what they
see into circuitry that digitizes and manipulates the image to compensate
for the weaknesses of the particular wearer’s vision — even brightening the
image, if necessary. The improved image is then displayed inside the
headset, bringing a clear picture to the person.

Today, the system is used by many people around the world.

Rickman graduated from Joplin’s Parkwood High School in 1969. He
earned his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Missouri
at Rolla, and his master’s in geology from the New Mexico Institute of
Mining and Technology in Socorro. His work with remote sensing began in 1980
at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. He joined the Marshall Center
in 1992.

When Rickman’s not finding new ways to “look” at things, he spends
time with his wife, the former Sharon Shaver of Kirkwood, Mo., and three
children: Dwight, 20; Barbara, 18; and Kathleen, 14.

Rickman is the son of Betty Rickman, who resides in Joplin.


SpaceRef staff editor.