On This Day in Criminal History: The Atlanta Olympic Bombing and the Birth of VISAR

27 Jul

I’m sure you all remember the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, GA. What you might not know is that this event gave birth to the Video Image Stabilization and Registration (VISAR) system. This is the system law enforcement uses to clear up, stabilize, and enhance video images to help read licenses plates, ID convenience store robbers, and close in on abductors caught in security cameras.

As part of the investigation into the Olympic bombing, the Southest Bomb Task Force of the FBI approached Dr. David Hathaway and Paul Mayer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, my home town. I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Dr. Hathaway as part of my research for my upcoming medical thriller, Stress Fracture, due in April, 2010. He shared with me the VISAR process, how he developed it as part of this investigation, and how he has used it in other famous cases.

Dr. Hathaway, Marshall’s Solar Physics Group Director, had been using advanced video techniques as part of his solar research. The FBI brought him 13 seconds of very dark film, made at night by a news reporter with a handheld camera. It showed the silhouette a large backpack, sitting on the ground near a park bench. Hathaway and Meyer went to work and step by step, through trial and error, stabilized, sharpened, and brightened the image. Dr. Hathaway showed me the step by step process and the results were amazing. What had been mere shadows soon became a back pack, top flap open, explosive device inside, thick wires hanging over the lip. VISAR was born.

Subsequently, Dr. Hathaway became involved in several other famous cases: the Mike Bell murder, the Katie Poirer and the Carlie Brucia abductions, the Elizabeth Smart case, and the Columbia accident to name a few.

So much of our daily life is touched by NASA spin-offs, including this computer, the GPS in your car, and all those indispensable things your iPhone does.

NASA 1999 Article

Dr. Hathaway and Paul Meyer: Who’s Who at NASA


2 responses to “On This Day in Criminal History: The Atlanta Olympic Bombing and the Birth of VISAR

  1. Pat Brown

    July 27, 2009 at 10:22 am

    I’m glad you mentioned the benefits that have come from NASA. Too often people look only at the results in the media — the flash of the moon landing, the first few launches of the shuttles, and look no further. Then they will complain about the government funds wasted on space exploration as though all we got from the moon shot were a few rocks. We need to realize that the research from the entire space venture has been instrumental in changing our lives astronomically (pun intended) I’ve heard one figure saying that for every dollar spent in research, we get back ten dollars in practical applications. And this VISAR is just one example.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      July 27, 2009 at 12:48 pm

      As someone who grew up with the Space Program in his backyard, I couldn’t agree more.



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