On 28 July 1970, while Congress still debated NASA’s funding, Tom Paine submitted his resignation as NASA administrator, effective September 15, to President Nixon. He was going to return to General Electric, the company he left to become deputy administrator. Many had argued that he resigned over NASA budget cuts, although the newspapers from the day, indicated that he had personal concerns.  Probably the most decisive factor was the slushing of the space exploration program, one of Paine’s big dreams.

With Paine’s leaving, NASA decided to turn its sight to planet Earth.  A few scientists had begun to publish papers that described a general scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels was changing global climate.  As the evidence of climate change could no longer be easily dismissed and with NASA’s funding failing, the acting administrator George M. Low decided that the agency needed to change its strategy.

It is clear that is we are to move forward with a strong space program, it, too, must be useful to the people here on earth. This means that a space applications program and specifically, an earth resources program should be the keystone for the space effort of the 70s.

Swearing in of George M. Low as Deputy Administrator of NASA . Source: Wikipedia Commons

What Low was really proposed was William’s Pickering idea for “practical earthly applications” a decade ago. One of Low’s first steps was to publish a booklet, Ecological Surveys From Space, illustrated with 46 Gemini and Apollo orbital photos. Soon afterwards, NASA published This Island Earth, which included many stunning photographs of Earth taken by the crews of Apollo 7 and Apollo 9, as well as a number of photographs from taken by weather satellites.

In the meantime, an innovative earth resources satellite programme called Earth Resources Technology Satellite, that NASA had been proposing since the 1967 with the support of the Department of the Interior, was in danger of going no further due to lack of funds.  Despite, James Webb’s skills as a political operator, the Budget Bureau had turned down his request for an extra funding of $12.2 million for research and development of this experimental earth resources satellite system, arguing that there were uncertainties about the benefits it could bring and also about the risks of bringing attention to military reconnaissance satellites.

The Earth Resources Technology Satellite programme would have been cancelled if President Nixon had not publically committed the country to an earth resources satellite programme in a speech before the United Nations in September 1969.

“There will be new journeys of discovery. Beyond this, we are just beginning to comprehend the benefits that space technology can yield here on earth. And the potential is enormous. For example, we now are developing earth resource survey satellites, with the first experimental satellite to be launched sometime early in the decade of the seventies.”

Despite the raised concerns over budget and security, Nixon agreed to provide the necessary budget for the first earth resources satellite.

 In March 1971, James C. Fletcher became NASA’s fourth administrator and George M. Low resumed his duties as number-two in the agency. Recognising the new realities of the economy and society, Fletcher decided to open NASA to new areas of operations. In July 1973, he announced that NASA’s new mission will be to study and understand the Earth and its environment.

“As you know NASA is called the space agency, but in a broader sense we could also be called an environmental agency. It is not just that space is our environment, but it is rather that, as you have seen, virtually everything we do, manned or unmanned, science or applications, helps in some practical way to improve the environment of our planet and helps us understand the forces that affect it. Perhaps that is our essential task, to study and understand the Earth and its environment”.

Dr. James C. Fletcher @NASA

Fletcher, probably affected by his religious beliefs, sought to align NASA with environmental values. A believer of the Mormon faith, he accepted the theological idea that everything belongs to God and humans had to care for God’s things. During his two services as NASA Administrator, between 1971 and 1977 and again between 1987 and 1989, James Fletcher tried to transform NASA into a much diverse and practically oriented agency with an emphasis on earthly applications in order to assist in making the planet a better place on which to live.

The Earth Resources Technology Satellite programme was eventually renamed Landsat in 1975. Landsat 1, the first earth–oriented satellite to use remote sensing to survey earth resources, was launched in 1972, followed by Landsat 2 in 1975, and three more until 1984.

Landsat 5

Operations for Landsat 5 – launched in November 1984 –  ceased in November 2011 and in those 25 year it collected hundreds of thousands of digital images of the planet Earth. It documented droughts, volcanic eruptions, the clearing of rainforests, it provided data to predict spring flooding, it helped scientists to monitor snow cover and glaciers, it recorded the influence of a human population that grew from less than 5 billion to over 7 billion.

Despite the problems on the development of Landsat, the conflicts based on budgetary issues and security concerns, and the controversies between NASA and other state agencies, NASA realised and effectively responded to the new economic and societal realities. It was a valuable experience that helped the agency to build a strong base that supported NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth programme in the 1980s.

Sources and further reading:
  1. Roger D. Launius and Howard E McCurdy, Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership, University of Illinois Press , 1997
  2. Kim McQuaid, “Selling the Space Age” NASA and Earth’s environment, 1958-1190” Environment and History, 12-2(2006), 127-163.
  3. Address Before the 24th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, September 18, 1969, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=2236
  4. Pamela E. Mack, Viewing the Earth: The social construction of the Landsat satellite system, (Cambridge. MA:MIT Press,1990):84-88
  5. Joseph Smith III, Roger D. Launius Interview to Resonance, March and April 2000, [http://www.resonancepub.com/launius.htm] Available from Resonance Publications, the portal fro Science, Engineering and Technology
  6. Roger D. Launius, “A western Mormon in Washington, D.C.: James C. Fletcher, NASA, and the final frontier,” Pacific Historical Review, 64:2 (May 1995) :222-226
  7. The Legacy of Landsat 5, https://landsat.usgs.gov/legacy-landsat-5
  8. Featured image: Landsat 8