With the Earth in what some would call a state of emergency, individual projects aren't enough. Some of NASA's greatest work is in the area of educating the public about the Earth in general. By increasing interest in Earth, people not only gain knowledge about the planet but also may be more likely to care about taking care of it.
In terms of spreading knowledge of and interest in the Earth, it doesn't get much better than NASA's Earth Observatory. It's an online collection of photographs taken by NASA's satellites, and it offers anyone with Internet access some of the most incredible views of Earth ever captured. It shows close-up orbital views of extreme weather, far-off views of the planet as a whole and specific features like active volcanoes. The Web site is even used by scientists working on Earth science research and by educators looking for a better understanding of Earth's climate, atmosphere and topography for themselves and their students.
NASA also takes a more active approach to education in programs like FIRST. FIRST is an international robotics competition for students, held each year with thousands of aspiring engineers attending from dozens of countries. The idea is that encouraging kids' science and engineering talents will produce new generations of scientists able to solve the world's biggest problems, including global warming, energy issues, pollution and countless other issues affecting the environment. It's a long-term approach that has the potential to bear much greater fruits than any particular research project or piece of technology.
Up next, No. 1 on our list is a NASA research area that could someday save the environment in a much more dramatic, immediate way than any other topic we've discussed so far.