In 1994, as part of NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth, the space shuttle Endeavour was launched from Florida on two missions with a high powered, spaceborne imaging radar aboard to scan the planet’s environmental “hot spots”, including the mountain gorilla’s Virunga habitat. The first shuttle mission blasted off from Kennedy Space Centre on April 9, 1994. Four days later as Endeavour orbited over Rwanda, its radar pointed at the mist-shrouded habitat of the last remaining mountain gorillas, a massacre was unfolding in the surrounding countryside with merciless efficiency. Over the next 100 days more than 800,000 people were brutally murdered in the Genocide.
Two years into the job and I was simultaneously experiencing both the highest and lowest points of my career. At first NASA refused to release the data from the mission; they feared they’d be accused of spying. So I enlisted the help of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, whom I’d known since my youth. He used his influence at NASA to get the data released.
Endeavour’s August launch, an event I attended with Clarke (see photo below), was scrubbed at the last second, but once in orbit two months later on its second mission, the space shuttle brought back even more stunning radar images of the gorilla habitat. The data would prove a valuable tool in the effort to save the mountain gorilla.
Read more about this awesome chapter of my career in From Outer Space to CONGO: A Chronology of Events.