Sidebar: Jack Estes – The Person and the Professional

Jack Estes thumbnailJohn Edward “Jack” Estes was born in San Diego, California, July 21, 1939. He earned a Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree in Geography from San Diego State University. Estes’ first job after getting his Master’s degree in Geography was with the CIA. On July 20, 1963 – the day after their wedding – Jack and Claire drove across United States to Washington, D.C., in a Dodge Dart with no air conditioning. “Some honeymoon,” quipped Mrs. Estes, remembering the long hours on the road in sweltering heat.[a] Estes studied aerial photos of the Soviet Union. The salary was $6,000 per year.

Estes had taken Russian at San Diego State. The CIA boosted his language skills. Years later, his knowledge of Russian and of the Soviet Union paid off with a free trip. The UCSB Alumni Association was planning a tour of the Soviet Union; Estes was invited to go in exchange for giving several lectures to the tour group. To prepare, the Alumni Association sent Dr. and Mrs. Estes on a scouting trip. While in Moscow, the government restrictions on movement were extreme. They limited experiencing the real Russian people, living conditions, and landscape, and they made the couple uneasy. They returned safely, but, due to international tensions, the tour itself was cancelled.[a]

After nearly a year with the CIA, Texas Instruments (TI) offered Estes a job doing remote sensing and air photo interpretation – TI didn’t just make calculators then – for a third more money. The $8,000 per year was a significant improvement. The Estes lived in Dallas from June 1964 to July 1965, until Mr. Estes got a fellowship at UCLA to begin his PhD.[a]

Jack teaching thumbnailEstes had an extra challenge that wasn’t publicized in professional journals: health. For years, Estes was sick enough with asthma to end up in hospital emergency rooms, and he struggled with ulcerated colitis. But in spite of health problems, Estes studied furiously. He was determined to get the PhD. While still working on the PhD in Winter 1969, he commuted to Santa Barbara to teach a night class in aerial photography and remote sensing for the UCSB Geography Program. Also adding to the intensity of this period of life, Estes’ first son, John, was born March 21. The family lived in five different apartments by the time the baby was 10 months old. One of those moves was to Santa Barbara in December 1969, not long after receiving his doctorate. The Estes family bought a home, in which Mrs. Estes still lives, and Dr. Estes taught at UCSB for 31 years – finally some stability in location at least![a]


Jack at Disneyland thumbnailIn 1971, Estes’ health brought him to a halt. Surgeons removed his colon and rectum. From then on he lived with a bag, as substitution for organs. But he hardly slowed, working on grant proposals while just beginning recovery. Soon thereafter, he returned to the classroom. And, also in 1971, he established the Remote Sensing Research Unit (RSRU). In the midst of getting the Research Unit rolling, Estes’ second son, Tom, was born February 20, 1973.[a]

By 1975, much due to RSRU, Geography Department extramural research funds reached $650,000 annually. Over the years, RSRU worked “with geologists, engineers, physicists, chemists, computer scientists, and environmental scientists, on remote sensing projects around the world which focused on forests, oceanography, farming, water resources, soils and similar phenomena.”[b] And it offered many graduate students the opportunity to work on exciting projects and earn degrees that bought them excellent jobs.[a]

Estes described what excited him about his career:

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“I became a university professor because I wanted to do research, and for me the freedom of a university environment provided the best place to do it. In particular, I’m interested in the many ways that civilization is affecting the Earth. In my research, I use low- and high-flying aircraft and spacecraft as remote platforms from which to study the Earth’s environment by means of pictures and images taken by cameras, lasers and other sensing devices.“More specifically, my research, using remote sensing instruments, is directed at producing more accurate information concerning the location and dynamics of the Earth’s resources than has been possible before. For example, images from satellites are being used to map mineral formations and agricultural crops, chart demographic trends, detect infestations of pests in forests, and monitor wilderness areas over large areas of the globe.

“Developing new techniques to produce and analyze information on major scientific questions is exciting. Our work, for example, on mapping the extent and determining the biomass of boreal forests is important in improving our knowledge of the Earth’s carbon cycle.

“We are not a traditional ‘names and places’ geography department. The faculty at UCSB is pushing the limits of research to improve our understanding of spatial patterns that we perceive around us. It is exciting to be here.”[c]

Besides being an academic, Estes worked for NASA and for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Some of this extra work was packed into summers, some during leaves of absence. For instance, from 1992 to 1995, the family lived in the Washington, D.C., area, while Estes was employed by the mapping division of the U.S. Geological Survey.[a]

Professor Keith Clarke, UCSB Geography Department, recounted some of Estes extramural accomplishments in an article he wrote following Estes’ death from cancer in 2001:

WORF thumbnail

“Dr. Estes had extensive experience in the federal government and in private industry. During his tremendous career, he maintained many consulting contacts. Dr. Estes conducted extensive contract and grant research on both the fundamental and applied aspects of the use of remote sensing and geographic information systems. This work included studies for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on land use change, crop identification, water demand modeling and advanced soil moisture conditions, among others. He also worked with the U.S. Forest Service on fire fuels monitoring and modeling; the United States Geological Survey and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the detection of marine oil pollution. Work conducted for other federal agencies included the U.S. Environmental Protection agency, Department of Energy, and Department of Defense, emphasizing hazard and pollution detection and modeling and resources management. Two recent accomplishments were: successfully working toward NASA’s WORF, an optical quality window in the International Space Station that allows remote sensing and that was successfully tested on the last Space Shuttle mission; and the Global Map project, for which Dr. Estes chaired the International Steering Committee.”[d]Mrs. Estes summed up her husband’s professional zeal succinctly: “He worked like a dog.”[a] She thought a factor in his relentless pace was childhood experiences. His father died when he was 10. His mother, due to family circumstances, had not finished high school. With few marketable skills and no prior job experience, she struggled to keep the family fed and housed. Personally, she valued education, and she strove to give her children the opportunities she had been denied. Doing his part, Estes always had a job. As a professor, he wanted to be sure his students would have stimulating and remunerative careers. Mrs. Estes, again: “His students were so important to him. For them to get a good job after completing their studies meant a lot to him. He thought of them as his children.”[a]

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Some of Jack’s students, past and present at Jack’s Memorial Celebration. UCSB Faculty Club, April 17, 2001

Estes was known to have a temper. Mrs. Estes thought health problems exacerbated the tendency.[a] His students, who were deeply grateful for his advocacy and respectful of his accomplishments, forgave Estes the fiery outbursts. Now that he has passed on, they warmly tell “Jack” stories.

Graduate student Jeff Hemphill recalled the Sunday morning at 6:30 A.M. when Estes, who had been working in RSRU all night, woke him up with a phone call. Estes boomed, “The printer’s not printing! The computer’s broken! The network’s down! I’ve got to print this document NOW!”[e] Hemphill dutifully vacated his warm bed, drove the 20 miles to UCSB, and entered RSRU. Examining the printer, the sleepy graduate student saw it was out of paper. He refilled the tray and asked Estes to print. Out spit the document. Jack, strung out from too many all-nighters, apologized, “Sorry, but I had to have this.”[e]

Karen Kline, another graduate student, recalled an episode in an airport, where she witnessed how Mrs. Estes dealt with her husband’s outbursts. She simply turned away as if she didn’t know the man. Mrs. Estes confirmed this was her solution when he’d blow up in public places.[f]

Estes traveled all the time: Italy, England, Norway, Japan – all over the world. What was ironic was that, as a young man, he was terrified of travel. When he had to fly to Washington, D.C., to interview with the CIA in 1963, at the airport his mother, aunt, and fiancée were all crying. Jack was crying. They waved goodbye as if they’d never see him again. It wasn’t airplanes, per se. The drive across the United States to take the job was just as traumatic. Mrs. Estes understood: “When Jack was ten, his father became very sick and Jack was sent to live with his aunt and uncle. The fact that his father was dying was kept a secret. When Jack came home, Dad was dead, gone.”[a] Leaving home became terrifying. There’s a medical name for that now: Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

Over the years, with all the required business travel, Estes became at ease. Mrs. Estes called him a “fly-boy.” He logged over a million miles on United Airlines, alone. For shear pleasure, Dr. and Mrs. Estes planned to travel all over the United States during retirement. They had begun preparations by buying a new, feature-loaded Volvo. But Estes died March 9, just three months before he was scheduled to retire.[a]

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Claire and Jack Estes at Cold Springs Tavern, Santa Barbara County, November 1996

Estes’ professional accomplishments are prodigious. “Jack has been a driving force in the advancement of remote sensing science, technology, and applied program development worldwide,” wrote an editor of the GAP Analysis Bulletin Board.[g] The International Steering Committee for Global Mapping praised Estes’ 5-year Chairmanship: “Under his leadership, Global Mapping Project has reached to its utmost achievements…. No person has made such a unique and distinctive contribution to our community than Professor Estes.”[h]

Perhaps Jeff Dozier, from UCSB, and Ghassem Asrar, of NASA Headquarters, best summed up Estes’ contributions in the tribute they wrote after his death. The article was published in Physics Today:

“[Estes] was a pioneer in promoting innovative applications of space-based Earth observations and geospatial information by cartographers and geographers. Jack had extensive experience in the federal government, mainly with NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS). The 1969 oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel led him to work on the detection of marine oil pollution, and from the early 1970s to the time of his death, he conducted studies for NASA on land-use change, crop identification, water-demand modeling, and soil moisture conditions. Initially, in the 1970s, his primary regional focus was the southern San Joaquin Valley, but the work was of such wide applicability that, during the 1980s, he and his students extended it worldwide. He also applied remote sensing technology to fire fuels monitoring and modeling, hazard and pollution detection, and resources management.“Jack had an exceptional ability to lead and guide graduate students, rather than direct them, in pursuit of their education and research objectives. More than 50 of his students received degrees and are now employed in prominent positions in various professional fields. His strength in teaching both undergraduate and graduate students lay in his thorough knowledge of his subject, his ability to organize and present complex materials, his sense of humor, and his sincere interest in his students’ well-being. He had a splendid sense of loyalty to his colleagues and students, and he made many lifelong friends.

“Jack’s significant, generous contributions to the remote sensing and geographic information systems communities went far beyond academia. In the 1990s, he took extended assignments of several years’ duration with both the USGS and NASA to assist in formulating national and international programs and policies for space-based Earth observations. Before his death, he had been the chair of the international steering committee for global mapping since its establishment by the United Nations in 1996, and he served on NASA’s international space station science utilization advisory committee. On the NASA committee, he successfully worked to secure the Window Observation Research Facility, an optical-quality window in the space station that allows Earth remote sensing and that was successfully tested on a space shuttle mission in 2000.

“As an outgrowth of his research, Jack published widely in a variety of venues. His work covered such fields as monitoring marine oil spills, analyzing agricultural crop identification and water demand, preserving biological diversity, and integrating remote sensing information with expert systems. He was the editor of the interpretations and applications volume of the Manual of Remote Sensing (2nd edition, American Society of Photogrammetry, 1983). With Daniel Botkin, he edited Changing the Global Environment: Perspectives on Human Involvement (Academic Press, 1989), and with Jeffrey Star he wrote Geographic Information Systems: An Introduction (Prentice Hall, 1990).

“Jack received the 1999 William T. Pecora Award, presented jointly by NASA and the US Department of the Interior to recognize outstanding contributions by individuals or groups toward an understanding of Earth by means of remote sensing. In 2001, NASA awarded Jack the Distinguished Public Service Medal in recognition of his pioneering achievements.

“For more than three decades, Jack helped those who study and manage the Earth to realize the tremendous potential of emerging geospatial and information system technologies, and he promoted this goal through his teaching and practice in modern geography. Jack will be missed greatly, though his legacy lives on through his numerous valuable national and international scientific contributions and his students.”[i]

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Jack Estes in South Africa, March 2000


  1. Interview with Claire Estes, March 3, 2003, and email, March 13, 2003
  2. Paragraphs by Robert Kelley in Transformations: UC Santa Barbara 1909-1979, published by the Associated Students, 1981, Page 118
  3. Paragraphs archived in RSRU and originally published in the 1985 UCSB General Catalog
  4. Memorial article written by colleague Prof. Keith Clarke shortly after Estes’ death March 2001
  5. Conversation with Jeff Hemphill, March 4, 2003
  6. Conversation with Karen Kline, March 2003
  7. Article written by editor in the Gap Analysis Bulletin Board and posted on this USGS website during summer 2001 then copied to UCSB Geography website
  8. Memorial page on ISCGM website
  9. Article in Physics Today posted on their website summer 2001

Sidebar: Jack Estes – Obituary and Slide Shows »