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Notes of a curious mind

Category: Climate Histories (Page 2 of 4)

Climate Histories: The hellish planet and the super-organism Gaia

On December 14, 1962, after a three-and-a-half-month journey of 293 million kilometres from Earth, NASA’s Mariner 2 spacecraft, approached Venus. Forty-four minutes before closest approach – at a distance of 34,773 kilometers from Venus, Mariner’s 2 radiometers began to scan the planet’s dayside.

On January 3, 1963, twenty days after passing Venus, Mariner 2 transmitted half an hour of telemetry and then went silent. Radio contact was lost for ever. Mariner 2 became a mute piece of metal, endlessly circling the Sun in a heliocentric orbit.

Mariner 2 was the first spacecraft to successfully flyby another planet. The mission was an outstanding success and it created a great deal of publicity. William Pickering, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which was responsible for designing Mariner 2,  found himself featured on the cover of Time Magazine and rode as Grand Marshall of the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

William Pickering, on the cover of Time magazine. Cover Credit Boris Artzybasheff

In the meantime, the scientific debate over what Mariner 2 might find at Venus had been intensified.  Radio observations in the 1950s gave rise to two interpretations – an extremely hot planet, with surface temperature at least at 342°C or a planet with a relatively benign surface temperature. But all the evidence from Mariner 2 seemed to confirm the high surface temperature interpretation. Venus was a hellish world. Ground temperatures were as high as 428oC (800oF). There was no evidence of a magnetic field around the planet and they couldn’t detect any water vapour in its atmosphere. Five years later, Mariner 5 revealed a thick cloud-covered planet with even higher temperatures and a crushing atmosphere.

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“A marvellous development” – Nimbus and ESSA satellites

NASA was involved in the U.S MetSat programme since the 1960s, by largely building the world’s first meteorological satellite TIROS-I, a project that  was transferred from ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), to the newly formed civilian space administration. TIROS, the first satellite to include television and infrared sensor systems as well as a ground station, a command control system and a data acquisition system, was put in orbit from Cape Canaveral on 1st April, 1960 by a Thor-Able launch vehicle and immediately start sending the first pictures to Earth.

This is a  “marvellous development”,  said President Eisenhower, when he saw the first pictures sent by TIROS-1, only seven hours after the launch, while Senator Lyndon B. Johnson stated that TIROS was the “best space news we have had in a long time, ….. a tremendous step toward peace”. The pictures were of low quality by today’s standards, and they were showing only land masses and cloud formations, but they were valuable to meteorologists, as for the first time they could see images of entire weather systems. Nine subsequent TIROS satellites followed the first one, sending a total of 649,077 pictures to earth from 1st April, 1960 to 1st July 1st, 1965.

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What NASA do?

On 1ST April, 1960, NASA launched from Cape Canaveral, TIROS-I (Television Infrared Observation Satellite). TIROS-I, a drum-shaped satellite (1.1 metre diameter and 48cm height), was the first true weather satellite. It operated for 78 days and proved to be much more successful than Vanguard 2, the satellite that was designed to measure cloud-cover distribution and was launched on 17 February, 1959.[1]

Immediately after launching, TIROS-I, started transmitting pictures containing cloud-cover views of the Earth. These photographs provided new information on weather patterns which meteorologists could use to provide the first weather forecasts based on data gathered from space.

TIROS paved the way for the Nimbus, a second-generation, more advanced satellite program, whose technology and findings are the heritage of most of the Earth-observing satellites NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have launched since then.

The first photo of Earth from a weather satellite, taken by the TIROS-1 satellite on April 1, 1960. Source:

A month after the launch of TIROS-I,  the chief of the U.S. Weather service wrote to NASA’s first Deputy Director, Dr Hugh Latimer Dryden, informing him that he was going to ask Congress for more R&D money for his agency. The Weather Service wanted to develop a system – in cooperation with NASA – to utilize the data received from satellites in orbit. Dryden was doubtful. Doing things for “research purposes was all NASA’s mission involved”, he replied, adding that “…..the exploitation of data from weather satellites either for research purposes or for weather forecasting are not within the function assigned to NASA by the NASA Act of 1958”.

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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 –

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,  [] 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:

Climate Histories: Discovering the Stratosphere

It was a chilly morning as a gawking crowd has gathered in the courtyard of the École Militaire, on the Champ-de-Mars, in Paris. In a few minutes, in this backyard, a ceremony would take place. Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish artillery officer and family man, who had been convicted of treason just days earlier in a rushed court-martial, would be stripped from his insignia medals and would be marched around grounds in his ruined uniform. The date was,  5 January, 1895.

The same morning, not so far from Paris, in the community of Trappes near Versailles, a man in his forties, frozen to his bones, was preparing to launch one more of his balloons up into the atmosphere. He was determined to obtain reliable temperature measurements up to a height of 14 kilometers. His name was Léon-Philippe Teisserenc de Bort,  and a few years later he would discover the stratosphere.

The atmosphere is what keep our planet alive. Without it, Earth would be a ball of frozen water and rock with an average temperature of minus 50 degrees Celsius. Life would be impossible.

In the 17th century, new instruments and methods of inquiry, allowed scientists to learn more about the world. The cornerstone of philosophy and science until then was that the space around Earth was filled with different combinations of earth, fire, water and air. This theory was suggested by ancient philosophers, and it was later supported and added to by Aristotle. Isaac Beeckman, a Dutch philosopher and physicist, was one of the first people to realize that air that surrounded Earth had real substance and in the late 1700s, scientists began to launch experiments with balloons and they were surprised to discover that the air was becoming thinner and colder as they rose. This discovery seemed to defy all logic, as the closer you get to a source of heat, that is the sun, the warmer you should feel. Of course, the sun wasn’t any closer to them, in any meaningful way.  So, for the next roughly two hundred years, the dominant belief amongst scientists was that the air got thinner and colder until it completely diminishes.  At the beginning of the nineteen century this will change.

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Climate Histories: Observing the Earth from space – The early days

In the 1889, the American clergyman and writer Edward Everett Hale published a short story titled The Brick Moon.  It is a tale about the creation of an artificial satellite for navigation purposes, the first of its kind. Hale didn’t only picture a brick moon in space with people on board; he also envisioned that the space settlers could communicate with the Earth, turning his imaginary space station into a communications satellite.

Illistration from “The Brick Moon” by Edward Everett Hale published in 1869. Source: Wikipedia

At the beginning of the twentieth century, rocket pioneers started to explore the possibility of interplanetary travel and imagined huge platforms orbiting the Earth, a starting point for missions to the Moon and Mars. They dreamed of other worlds but at the same time they were trying to imagine what our planet might look like from space.

Weathermen and climatologists have started applying literature and poetry to their subject to express their experiences and visions about Earth.[1] In the 1930s, the French astronomer and artist Lucien Rudaux came closer than anyone else before in illustrating what the Earth look like as a planet. His illustrations, with data taken from the world weather records showed a planet surrounded by cloud systems. And, George W. Mindling, an “Official in Charge” of the Atlanta Weather Bureau, and a poet, predicted the use of television and infrared sensors on satellites in his 1939 poem, titled The Raymete and the Future.

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