Go Now! Landsat & the Calypso Caper

  • Released Thursday, August 12, 2021

During the summer of 1975, Jacques Cousteau and his divers helped NASA determine if Landsat could measure the depth of shallow ocean waters. The story of this NASA-led satellite bathymetry experiment unfolds through the photography and expedition documents preserved by David Lychenheim, the expedition’s communications engineer. Research done during that expedition determined that in certain conditions Landsat could measure depths up to 22 meters (72 feet), which gave birth to the field of satellite-derived bathymetry. This new technology enabled charts in clear water areas around the world to be revised, helping boats and deep-drafted supertankers avoid running aground on hazardous shoals or seamounts.

Music: “Science of Life,” “Moving In Thought,” and “The Right Move” by Andrew Michael Britton [PRS] & David Stephen Goldsmith [PRS], “Midsummer” by Uwe Buschkotter [GEMA], “The Grand Opening” by Laurent Dury [SACEM], “Drifting Satellite” by Théo Boulenger [SACEM], “Man and Machine” by Larry Groupe [BMI], “A Little Optimism 1” by Joel Goodman [ASCAP], “Easy Does It” by Alchemist [SIAE], “Variations” by Stephan Sechi [ASCAP], “Bright and Playful” by Oscar Lo Brutto [PRS]; via Universal Production Music

Complete transcript available.

Watch this video on the NASA Goddard YouTube channel.

In the summer of 1975, Jacques Cousteau, his expert divers, and a team of scientists embarked on a three-week long expedition to see if the newly launched Landsat satellites could measure shallow water depth from space. David Lychenheim, the communications engineer on Cousteau's ship, documented the NASA-led satellite bathymetry experiment. Utilizing David's photography and expedition documents, the story of this once-in-a-lifetime collaboration unfolds. Participants included an Apollo 9 astronaut, a president's son, scientists from NASA, three universities, the Defense Mapping Agency, and the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as the coordination of two research vessels, a T-38 jet, and 13 different satellites for weather, communication, and imagery.

For days, the ships played leapfrog with the Landsat 1 and 2 satellites in the waters between the Bahamas and Florida, sailing 90 nautical miles each night to be in position for the morning overpass of the satellite. Ultimately, research done on the trip determined that in clear waters, with a bright seafloor, depths up to 22 meters (72 feet) could be measured by Landsat. This revelation gave birth to the field of satellite-derived bathymetry and enabled charts in clear water areas around the world to be revised, helping sailing vessels and deep-drafted supertankers avoid running aground on hazardous shoals or seamounts.

"It was a tremendous example of how modern tools of scientists can be put together to get a better understanding of this globe we live on," the Deputy NASA Administrator, George Low, said of the expedition in a 1976 interview. But it couldn't have happened without the world's most famous aquanaut, Jacques Cousteau, and his team of expert divers.

The Landsat Program is a series of Earth-observing satellite missions jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Landsat satellites have been consistently gathering data about our planet since 1972. They continue to improve and expand this unparalleled record of Earth's changing landscapes for the benefit of all.


Please give credit for this item to:
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Expedition photos courtesy of David Lychenheim. Additional Footage & Photos from Prelinger Archive, Artbeats, Louis Vest, the Cousteau Society, and the Batilus tanker in Saint-Nazaire by Jacques Girard via Wikimedia Commons

Release date

This page was originally published on Thursday, August 12, 2021.
This page was last updated on Wednesday, May 3, 2023 at 1:44 PM EDT.


This visualization is related to the following missions:


This visualization can be found in the following series: