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.

 “Have you noticed how often in times that are past
We have used new inventions to improve the forecast?

Television is coming, it is not far away;
we’ll be using that too in a not distant day.

Photographs will be made by the infrared light
that will show us the clouds both by day and by night.

From an altitude high in the clear stratosphere
Will come pictures of storms raging far if not near

Revealing in detail across many States
the conditions of weather affecting our fates

There will then be no need for the stale weather maps
With their many blank spaces and wide open gaps

And with no information as the hours elapse.

In the coming perpetual vision to one show
we shall see the full action of storms as they go.

We shall watch them develop on far away seas,
and we’ll plot out their courses with much greater ease”

George Mindling’s prophecy became fact twenty-one years later, with the launching of TIROS I, the first meteorological satellite, on April 1, 1960.  But in the late 1940s, only a few visionary scientists could appreciate the usefulness of orbiting weather satellites in providing valuable and accurate data to some of the most complicated meteorological phenomena, such as storms, hurricanes, and cold fronts.  One of the first to consider the potential benefits of meteorological satellites for both warning people about approaching severe weather and gathering information about the atmosphere was Dr. Harry Wexler, director of meteorological research, U.S. Weather Bureau. In a 1956 address to the American Astronautical Society, Wexler said:

“Since the satellite will be the first vehicle contrived by man that will be entirely out of the influence of weather, it may at first glance appear rather startling that this same vehicle will introduce a revolutionary chapter in meteorological science–not only by improving global weather observing and forecasting, but by providing a better understanding of the atmosphere and its ways. There are many things that meteorologists do not know about the atmosphere, but one thing they are sure of is this—that the atmosphere is indivisible—that meteorological events occurring far away will ultimately affect local weather. This global aspect of meteorology lends itself admirably to an observation platform of truly global capability—the Earth satellite.” [3]

He went so far as commissioning a painting of what thought the Earth would like from a satellite, taking into account Earth’s colours, reflectivity of sunlight, and the of various cloud types.

Harry Wexler’s vision of how the Earth should look from a weather satellite (1954). Image source:

Then, on 5th October, 1954, an Aerobee rocket, a small rocket used for scientific research that had launched from White Sands, accidentally obtained pictures of a tropical cyclonic storm system near Del Rio, Texas. It was the first time that such a storm was photographed from an altitude and the first time that the earth had been successfully photographed in its natural colour from rocket altitude.[4]

The meteorologists got existed and they tried to convince the politicians of the value of launching satellites into space.  It wasn’t easy. Ed Pursell of Harvard and a member of the first President Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) had been recalling how he had to explain repeatedly in seminar talks all over Washington, why satellites did not simply fall straight towards the centre of the earth like a rock.[5]

It was the 1950s, with the tension of the Cold War looming overhead.  The rockety projects of the U.S. and the Soviet Union evolved in independent but parallel paths. By the late 1950s, Chief Designer Sergey Pavlovich Korolev’s team produced R-7, (for the Russians P-7), the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. Using R-7, the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite on 4 October 1957. It was this development that convinced the politicians in the United States to move ahead with the development of satellites and space exploration.

The Killian report was the beginning of the triumph of technology and the eclipse of old fashioned espionage at the CIA. [6]   “….we can use the ultimate in science and technology to improve our intelligence take,” argued Killian and he urged Eisenhower to build spy planes and space satellites to soar over the Soviet Union and photograph its arsenals.

The technology was within America’s grasp. A memo sent by Loftus Becker, a young lawyer serving as deputy director for intelligence (DDI), in 1952, was proposing the development of a satellite vehicle with a television camera for reconnaissance, to survey the Soviet Union from deep space. The challenge was to develop the camera, but Edwin Land, a flamboyant genius and Harvard dropout was sure he could do it. He had already invented the Polaroid.

In November 1954, Land and Killian met with the President Eisenhower to discuss high-altitude reconnaissance. The President approved the development of the U-2 spy plane (missile), a powered glider with a camera in its belly that would put American eyes behind the iron curtain. Eisenhower gave the go-ahead, along with a glum prediction. Someday, he said “one of these machines is going to be caught, and then we’ll have a storm.”  [7]

[1] Encyclopedia of World Climatology

[2] G. Mindling, “1939, NOAA Celebrates 200 years of Science, Service and Strewards”, Available from [], NOAA (09 October 2007)

[3] Drawing Found at NOAA Forecasted the Potential of Meteorological Satellites.

[4] L.F. Hubert and Otto Berg, “A Rocket Portrait of a Tropical Storm”, Monthly Weather Review, 83 (June 1955), 119-120, available from []  American Meteorological Society

[5] Allan Bromley, The President’s Scientists: Reminiscences of a White House Science Advisor, Yale University Press, 1994.

[6] Headed by James R. Killian, President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Technological Capabilities Panel of the Science Advisory Committee prepared a study, issued in 1955, requested by the President on U.S. technological capability to reduce the threat of surprise attack.

[7] James R. Killian, Sputnik, Science and Eisenhower: A Memoir of the first assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Cambridge, MA:MIT Press. 1967. Pp.70-71.