Climate Histories: Spying on the Stratosphere

He was in the air for more than eight hours. He was tired, trapped within a heavy helmet and an uncomfortable pressure suit that resembled an airtight cocoon. The air was so thin that he would be dead in seconds without the space suit. He was flying at altitude of 65,000 feet (about 19,800 metres). 95 percent of the atmosphere was below him.

Our pilot could see across whole countries but he was alone in complete radio silence. His food was a form of liquidized paste which was inserted into the helmet through a tube in a special port. The date was 5 July, 1956, and our pilot which was flying a Lochhead U-2 aircraft, was carrying out one of the most important missions of the cold war.

The first U-2, dubbed the ‘Dragon Lady’, was built in utter secrecy and its purpose was to gather intelligence during the Cold War era. It was a remarkable reconnaissance aircraft.  It was designed to operate at 70,000 feet (about 21,000 metres), higher and for longer periods than any other aircraft since then.  It was a difficult aircraft to fly. At an altitude close to limit, only 6 knots separated the speeds at which low-speed stall and high-speed buffet occurred. If the aircraft slowed beyond the low-speed stall limit, it could lose lift and begin to fall. The pilots had a name for this narrow range of acceptable airspeeds. They called it ‘coffin corner.’

Lochhead U-2 was equipped with large-format cameras, finer that any made before, designed by Edwin Land, a flamboyant genius and Harvard dropout who had already invented the Polaroid. But U-2 was not just equipped to see. It could sniff as well. It was equipped with instruments to detect and sample aerosols of the upper air. These samples offered an opportunity for scientists to measure a new addition to the stratosphere: nuclear fallout.

Between 1945 and 1960, the United States and the USSR tested hundreds of nuclear weapons, the most disturbing experiments ever carried out by scientists in relation to military programs. The U-2 pilots, guided by the clicking of their Geiger counters, could collect samples of the bomb’s radioactive fallout before it fell, thus providing scientists with insights into both the weapons being tested and the circulation of the stratosphere.

“Baker Shot”, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear test by the United States at Bikini Atoll in 1946. Source: Wikipedia

America’s Atomic Energy Committee (AEC), responsible for making and testing the bombs, held that risks to human health from the fallout produced in nuclear tests were very small. They thought that the fallout, for the most part, was mostly in the lower stratosphere (10 kilometres or around 6.2 miles above the ground at middle latitudes) and it stayed there typically only a couple of years, rather than ten or more, as Dr Willard Libby had been claiming. Dr Willard Libby of the AEC, argued that radioactive fallout, is “unlike the others. Time and distance are no longer compact and predictable. Fall out linger, travels with the wind and may persist for long periods of time.”  Today, we know that in the zones that jet streams occur – 9-16 kilometres above the surface of the Earth –  the air circulation is uneven and mixes more freely than it does elsewhere. This means that fallout not only came down quicker, washed by rain, than Libby and the AEC thought; “it also did so preferentially in particular parts of North America, Europe, Russia and China – that is, in the belt of land above which the northern jet stream winds its way.”

The radioactive fallout and spread was not only of interest to atmospheric scientists who were began to study the behaviour of the troposphere and appreciate the changes from place to place but it also mattered to anti-nuclear campaigners. The first truly global environmental issue that engendered widespread protests sand political debates had indeed been the danger of fallout from nuclear testing.

It gave also the opportunity to scientists to explore further the possibility of observing the earth from above. They were confident that satellite technology would be the future in the observation of weather and climate phenomena. Characteristically, the scientist Siegfried Fred Singer, director of the Centre for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Maryland and later Special advisor to President Eisenhower on space developments, said in 1958, that the application of meteorological satellites would “affect our way of life more than any other aspect of this space flight business, except possibly for man to travel to the planets”.

The message for Moscow was similar. The newspaper Pravda, the official organ of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, run a story by Dr. A.N. Nesmayanov, the president of the USSR Academy of Sciences, which boasted: “The creation and launching of the Soviet artificial satellite purposes during the International Geophysical Year [1957] will play an exceptional role in unifying the efforts of scientists of various countries in the struggle to conquer the forces of nature.”

The signals from the east did not fall completely on deaf ears in America, but the country was in the throes of a looming crisis that had begun with the opening of the school year and was quickly escalating into a major challenge to President’s Eisenhower’s authority. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v Board of Education, which invalidated the “separate but equal” racial guidelines that had governed segregated schools had sparkled a political rebellion in the heavily Democratic South. Nineteen senators and seventy-seven congressmen issued a defiant proclamation, called the “Southern Manifesto”, in March 1956, condemning the Court and its ruling. Only Albert Gore Sr of Tennessee and Lyndon Baines Jonson, the majority leader from Texas, had refused to add their signatures.

Despite the political crisis and politicians’ hesitations, the experiments on weather–observation by satellites were expanding rapidly and the first prototype of what was later grown to be the TIROS satellite was already under development.


Pedlow, Gregory W., Welzenbach, Donald E., McDOnald, J. , CIA And The U-2 Program, 1954-1974, (1998)

Oliver Morton, “The Planet Remade : How Geoengineering Could Change the World” , Princeton University Press (November 3, 2015), pp 42-43

NASA History (

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. November 1956, Vol. XII, no 9.

Oliver Morton, “The Planet Remade : How Geoengineering Could Change the World” , Princeton University Press (November 3, 2015)

Hill Janice,“The weather from above: America’s Meteorological Satellites” Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

“The creation and launching of the Soviet”, F.J. Krieger, Behind the Sputniks, Washington, D.C., Public Affairs Press, 1958, p.329.

Brzezinski Matthew “Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the rivalries that ignited the space age” 2007, Bloomsbury, p.136

Hill Janice,“The weather from above: America’s Meteorological Satellites” Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

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