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Climate Histories: The Restless Sphere – IGY and the beginning of the race to space

…to observe geophysical phenomena and to secure data from all parts of the world; to conduct this effort on a coordinated basis by fields, and in space and time, so that results could be collated in a meaningful manner. [1]

In the early 1950s, the American physicist and engineer Lloyd Berkner started to investigate the development of the Earth’s atmosphere but the lack of available data limited his research. He felt that fundamental questions about global-scale environmental processes would remain unsolved unless opportunities are created to collect data on a worldwide basis.[2]

Berkner, a man of great energy, decided to create these opportunities. With several colleagues, he proposed, in 1950, an international geophysical programme modelled on the International Polar Years of 1882-1883 and 1932-1933.  He envisaged a large-scale global programme of intergovernmental cooperation in scientific research, that would allow scientists from around the world to take part in a series of coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena.

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From Mars Exploration to Space Station and System Z. An ambitious programme to study the Earth

On 15 July 1965, the Mariner 4 spacecraft sent the first close-up images of the Red Planet to  Earth. These blurry images  revealed the cratered, rust-colored surface of  the planet and discouraged those who believed that there might be life on Mars. A  New York Times editorial said that “Mars is probably a dead planet” and most of the scientific community agreed, at that time, with this account.

Mariner 4 image, the first close-up image ever taken of Mars. This shows an area about 330 km across by 1200 km from limb to bottom of frame, centered at 37 N, 187 W. The area is near the boundary of Elysium Planitia to the west and Arcadia Planitia to the east. The hazy area barely visible above the limb on the left side of the image may be clouds

Mariner 4 image, the first close-up image ever taken of Mars. This shows an area about 330 km across by 1200 km from limb to bottom of frame, centered at 37 N, 187 W. The area is near the boundary of Elysium Planitia to the west and Arcadia Planitia to the east. The hazy area barely visible above the limb on the left side of the image may be clouds. Credit: NASA

Nevertheless, NASA continued its exploration of Mars. Mariner 9 (1971)  revealed a planet of varied environments and changed scientists’s perceptions about the Red Planet and led to Viking mission. Viking 1 and 2 landers were the first spacecrafts to touch successfully the surface of Mars in 1976.

A few months before the launch of Viking 1, in  1976,  NASA invited a team of specialists to discuss extensively all aspects of the Mars in a three-week meeting. Concluding the meeting Michael Mc Elroy of Harvard University, said something he had been discussing with a few other earth scientists for some time: “You know, we’ve never done anything like this for earth.”

The need for a multidisciplinary programme to study global change was the subject of the discussion for some time within the scientific community. A few Earth scientists were pondering a multidisciplinary geosphere-biosphere research programme in the context of IGY, but the political, economical and ideological circumstances that could endorse such a venture, did not exist at the time.

The arrival of Reagan administration in 1981 brought a change in NASA’s leadership. The new administrator James Beggs, and Burton Edelson, head of the Office of Space Science and Applications (OSSA), had taken a keen interest in using satellites’ technology for Earth observation but their enthusiasm was not shared by NASA’s associate administrator Hans Mark. Mark, a strong supporter of the space station – NASA’s major project that period – believed that an earthly science programme could damage NASA’s priorities in space and it could provoke an escalated antagonism with other agencies, NOAA for example.

Richard Goody

Nevertheless, Hans Mark asked the guidance of Richard Goody, a geophysics of Harvard University, with whom Mark had worked with when he was Director of the Ames Research Centre. Richard Goody recalls that Mark took him aside (in an used Xerox room) and explained him NASA’s idea about an ambitious global climate programme. It included a large space mission to observe the earth system and explore the links and the interactions between the major system components of the earth, how they have evolved, function, and how they may be expected to evolve on all time scales.

The idea of the Earth as one interacting system had a certain appeal for Richard Goody. He suggested that such a programme could bring a focus to NASA’s observation programme which, at the time, did not seem to have a sense of direction. It could also protect the agency from Reagan administration budget cuts. He agreed to participate in the project.

But, there was a problem. NASA’s Earth observation program had been in NASA’s applications division, which purpose was the development of practical commercialising technology and its  budget was far too small to support the development of new knowledge.  After much discussion,  the agency made a tempting offer that both scientists and bureaucrats found hard to turn down.  NASA proposed a satellite remote sensing system which was dubbed “System Z” and called for the Space Shuttle to lift the polar-orbiting Earth-observing platforms into space.  By carrying the cost of the satellite platforms, NASA’s  hoped that the money for System Z would have come from Space Station Freedom (the NASA project that led eventually to the International Space Station).

This artist’s concept depicts the Space Station Freedom as it would look orbiting the Earth, illustrated by Marshall Space Flight Center artist, Tom Buzbee. (1991) Source: Wikipedia

The basic concept behind System Z was integrated Earth observations. More specific to gather satellite data on world ecology and natural resources and predict the Earth’s habitability over the next 50 or so years.

The feedback received by scientists was positive and optimistic. Thomas Donahue, former chair of the NRC Space Science Board, referred to System Z, as “a gift” that “was merged with the developing ideas about putting a lot of Earth observing remote sensing instruments on a single platform”. System Z would allow them to conduct simultaneous measurements of many environmental and climate variables such as air and surface temperatures, vegetation, cloud reflectivity, and ice cover, observe the multiple factors that affect earth’s ability to support life and better understand the past and future but most importantly predict the trends of future climates.

An early sketch of “System Z.” Credit: Mark Abbott; Originally published by the Earth Observer. Source: NASA

President Reagan refused to launch the Space Station Freedom initiative in 1982 and then again in 1983.  Since System Z was tied to Space Station program it had been forces to wait until the President’s approval. He finally announced – overruling most of his advisers – his approval during his January 25, 1984 State of the Union address. “A space station will permit quantum leaps in our research in science, communications, in metals, and in lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space,” he said and invited the allies of the United States to participate in the space station program.

While System Z was not approved as part of the Space Station Programme at this point, NASA decided to move forward with the development of the system, now renamed Earth Observing System (EOS).


  1. The Search For Martian Life Begins: 1959-1965,  On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet. 1958-1978, https://www.hq.nasa.gov/pao/History/SP-4212/ch3.html
  2. Edward Edelson, “Laying the Foundation”, Mosaic 19,3/4 (Winter/Fall 1988),6
  3. Kennedy, The U.S. Government and Global Environmental Change Research, 4
  4. Richard Goody, “Observing and thinking about the Atmosphere”, Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, 27 (2002), 15
  5. M. M. Waldrop, “An inquiry into the state of the Earth”, Science, Vol. 226, No 4670 (October 5, 1984), 34
  6. G. Taubes, “Earth Scientists Look NASA’s Gift Horse in the Mouth” ,Science, Vol 259, No 5097, (12 February,1993), 912
  7. William K. Stevens, ‘Huge space platforms seen as distorting studies of earth’ New York Times 19 June 1990, Section C, page 1.
  8. Ten Presidents and NASA, https://www.nasa.gov/50th/50th_magazine/10presidents.html
A replica of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in the world to be put into outer space: the replica is stored in the National Air and Space Museum

Climate Histories: Sputnik and a Satellite Hysteria

“Each of these first rockets was like a beloved woman for us. We were in love with every rocket, we desperately wanted it to blast off successfully. We would give our hearts and souls to see it flying.”

Boris Chertok, in a series of interviews with the Associated Press

The 4th October 1957, looked like an ordinary Friday in Washington D.C. People were wrapping things up and preparing for the weekend. For Dr. John P. Hagen, a solar radio astronomer, and director of the Navy’s earth satellite program, it was the end of a challenging week.

Beginning on Monday, 30 September, the international scientific organization known as CSAGI (Comité Speciale de l’Année Geophysique Internationale) held a six-day conference with scientists from the United States, the Soviet Union, and five other nations, on rocket and satellite research, as part of the International Geophysical Year activities. In the opening session of the conference, Sergei M. Poloskov, a member of the Russian Delegation, gave a talk, titled ‘Sputnik’, the Russian’s word for “travelling companion”. ‘Sputnik’ was also the name chosen for the artificial satellite the Soviets were prepared to launch. “We are now, on the eve of the first artificial satellite”, said Poloskov throwing the conference into a state of wild speculation.

On October 4, 1957, at 7.28 UTC, from Site No. 1 (now known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome) in southern Kazakhstan, the Soviet Union launched into an elliptical low Earth orbit the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, an aluminium 22-inch sphere with four radio aerials sticking out of it. It weighed only 83,6 kg (184.3 pounds). Sputnik travelled and it circled Earth more than 1,400 times at 96 minutes an orbit. It was the beginning of a new age in history – the space age.

For the next 21 days until the transmitter batteries ran out, amateur radio operators, throughout the world, monitored the beep of Sputnik’s radio signals.  It orbited within the outer ionosphere for the next 3 months, until the atmosphere friction led to orbital decay and its demise.

Khrushchev with U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon, 1959. Source: NARA – http://www.archives.gov/research/cold-war/conference/

It was a period of big change in the Soviet Union. Three years after Stalin’s death the party had embarked on a new political course. Nikita Khrushchev had admitted the scale of terror and the atrocities carried out by Stalin. The dismantling of the prison camps was a divisive issue.  The sense of crisis deepened in November 1956, when the Soviet Union invaded Budapest, putting an end to the Hungarian revolution.

Although the government managed to curb the crisis, Moscow’s global authority was tainted, perhaps for ever. Sputnik maybe provided the opportunity to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to boast about Moscow’s supposedly technological superiority. Its success could increase Soviet Union’s influence in Asia and Africa, but most importantly could give the USSR the upper hand in the arms race.

Edward Teller on Time magazine cover. 18 November, 1957

Sputnik had a major impact on the United States. It ignited what has been described as a ‘near-hysterical reaction’ on the part ‘of the American press, politicians, and publicSenator Henry M. Jackson (D) characterized Sputnik as “a devastating blow to the prestige of the United States as the leader in the scientific and technological world.” Edward Teller, the ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’, whose portrait appeared on the cover of the Time magazine a few months later, warned President Eisenhower that the Soviets were winning the race in military technology and in scientific research, and pronounced the Sputnik program as “A greater defeat for our country than Pearl Harbour”.

The Vice-President Richard Nixon saw the Sputnik success as a failure of the Western civilisation and it became a source of tension between him and President Eisenhower.  At a cabinet meeting on 11 October, 1957 he had spoken out in favour of increased defense spending.  He argued that the administration needed to take an initiative on the missile issue. But Eisenhower had other concerns. In a recession year, his main priority was to keep the budgetary expenditures from going, as he put it, “hog wild.” He expressed confidence in the technological power of the United States and shunted aside the proposals for nuclear-powered spaceship that would fly to the moon, explaining, “I’d like to know what’s on the other side of the moon, but I won’t pay to find out this year.”

Eisenhower understood that to get a satellite up quickly was not the most important thing to do. He could be so calm because he knew that the United States had its own missile and satellite programme, in fact several programmes that would drive American technology with far-reaching impact.

United States’ first try to launch a satellite in December 1957, was unsuccessful. The rocket blew up only two seconds after take-off, and the satellite was immortalised as “Kaputnick.” It was soon followed by a second, also unsuccessful try on January 1958. Finally, on 17 March, 1958, the Project Vanguard launched successfully the 3 1/4-pound (about 147kg) satellite, Vanguard 1, which is now the oldest man-made object in space.

Also, early in 1958, the Defence Department created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (APRA) – later to become the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DAFRA) –  to develop US missiles. But Eisenhower decided that this kind of research should be conducted by a civilian agency. Finally, on October 1, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) organisation was established. Its role, according to its first Administrator Keith Glennan and deputy administrator Hugh Latimer Dryden, was research and development (R&D) of space science technology, including the development and lunch of unpiloted systems, vehicles and satellites in space, astronauts training and space exploration.


References and further reading:
  1. Project Vanguard: The NASA History,  by Constance McLaughlin Green, Milton Lomask
  2. The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin,  Penguin Books, 2012.
  3. Zuoyue Wang. In Sputnik’s Shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America, Rutgers University Press, 2008
  4. Moscow 1956: The Silenced Spring by Kathleen E. Smith, Harvard University Press, May 2017.
  5. Time Magazine, 18 November, 1957
  6. The Sputnik Challenge: Eisenhower’s Response to the Soviet Satellite, by Robert A. Divine, Oxford University Press, 2006.
  7. Michael H.Gorn, “Hugh L. Dryden’s Career in Aviation”, Monographs in Aerospace History,  [www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/pdf/88790main_Dryden.pdf] Available  from NASA History Office
  8. Featured Image: A replica of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite in the world to be put into outer space: the replica is stored in the National Air and Space Museum. Source:  http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/database/MasterCatalog?sc=1957-001B

Climate Histories: The engineer and the artificial production of carbon dioxide

Almost 80 years ago, on April 1938, an English steam and combustion engineer and  amateur weather-watcher, published a paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. His name was Guy Stuart Callendar and his paper, titled “The artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and its Influence on Temperature”, was going to be one of the most influential papers on climate change science.

Born in Canada in 1898, Callendar earned a certificate in Mechanics and Mathematics in 1922 at City & Guilds College and at the time he published his seminal paper was employed as a steam technologist by the British Electrical and Allied Industries Research Association. A keen meteorologist, interested in climate, Calendar spent his spare time gathering temperature and weather data from around the world. He made all the calculations by hand in his home, in West Sussex, England, and his measurements were so accurate that “they were used to correct the official temperature records of central England”.

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The Callendar Effect by James Rodger Flemming

Guy Callendar was an English engineer, who in the 1930s estimated that man had added about 150,000 million tonnes of CO2 during the past century and the planet had undergone warming on the order of one degree Fahrenheit (0.5 degrees Celsius).

CallendarIn his first published paper, in February 1938, titled “The artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and its Influence on Temperature”, Callendar showed that there is “a quantitative relation between the natural movement of this gas and the amounts produced by the combustion of fossil fuel”, and argued “that the activities of man could have any influence upon phenomena of so vast a scale… that is not only possible, but is actually occurring at the present time.”

He also referred to the oceans as a “giant regulator of carbon dioxide” which had exceeded the limits of the natural carbon cycle and would not be able to absorb all or most of its excess. But as Arrhenius before him, Callendar appealed the idea of atmospheric warming. Concluding his article he speculated that the combustion of fossil fuels “is likely to prove beneficial to mankind in several ways, besides the provision of heat and power…..  Small increases of mean temperature would be important at the northern margin of cultivation, and the growth of favourably situated plants is directly proportional to the carbon dioxide pressure. In any case the return of the deadly glaciers should be delayed indefinitely.”

Callendar published his discoveries in a series of papers, but they did not raise any interest from the scientific community. Only, later, in 1957, just before the beginning of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) – the first global scale experiment that recognised the potential of satellite technology in studying the Earth -, Hans Seuss and Roger Revelle, although they believed “that it was absolutely impossible to have had a sufficient increase in the CO2 amount in this century”, they referred to the “Callendar effect,” defining it as “climatic change brought about by anthropogenic increases in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, primarily through the processes of combustion.” Suggestive of Callendar’s brilliance was the fact that years later, scientists forecasted that some countries (Russia, Canada, New Zealand) will gain form climate change through an improved capacity for growing food, and used his prognosis that to promote and gain political support for their research projects to study climate change.

James Rodger Fleming is a professor at Colby College and a leading historian of atmospheric sciences and weather prediction. He has written a really fascinated book.

 

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