Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind


NASA‘s New Earthy profile – LANDSAT

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,
  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, [] 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,
  8. Featured image: Landsat 8


“We Choose to go to the Moon”, and Beyond

You could cut the humidity with a knife that day in Houston. It was 12 September 1962 and more than 35,000 spectators had gathered at the Rice stadium to hear President John F. Kennedy speak. The temperature was 94 degrees (34.5 degrees Celsius). It was fiercely hot.

There are certain moments in history that define the future of a nation. Kennedy’s speech in Houston was one of this moments. Before the decade was finished, Kennedy said, America was determined to land a man in the moon and bring him safety back to Earth.

 We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

President Kennedy, at Rice Stadium in 1962, prepares the nation for the lunar landing

President Kennedy had a bold vision. He shared it with his fellow Americans, he inspired generations of Americans to think big. He called them to think what kind of country they want to build. It was the day that project Apollo’s race to the Moon began. Kennedy’s vision came true, on 20 July 1969, when the astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface.

But Kennedy’s attitude toward the U.S. space program was more complex and not all about going to the moon. On a special message to the congress on urgent national needs on 25 May, 1961, he asked for additional funds to accelerate the use of space satellites for world-wide communications; 75 million dollars- “of which 53 million dollars is for the Weather Bureau–will help give us at the earliest possible time a satellite system for world-wide weather observation.”

NASA had already built a satellite programme that was yielding excellent results both in terms of scientific knowledge and practical application. The pictures, transmitted by TIROS and Nimbus satellites, were of high value to meteorologists and other scientists, as for the first time they could see images of entire weather systems, and allowed them to create maps of the entire Earth.

Space exploration has rarely been the top priority for NASA. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 specified that the new agency would contribute materially to eight separate objectives.  With the retirement of James E. Webb on October 1968, NASA’s Deputy Administrator, Dr Thomas O. Paine, a man obsessed with space exploration, was named Acting Administrator of NASA.

When Nixon took office, Paine submitted his resignation, but when all Nixon’s candidates declined the position, Nixon decided to stick with Thomas Paine. He was nominated as NASA’s third Administrator on March 20, 1969.

Wernher von Braun talks with NASA Associate Administrator Dr. Thomas Paine at the Launch Control Center of the Kennedy Space Center prior to the launch of Apollo 6 on April 4, 1968. (NASA Photo 107-KSC-68P-125.)

Paine’s aspiration was to develop an Apollo like programme that could get men to Mars in 30 years. But support and interest in space exploration had waned. At the end of 1967, The New York Times reported that a poll conducted in six American cities showed that public issues, such as air and water pollution and poverty, held priority over efforts on outer space. And the following year Newsweek wrote: ‘The U.S. space program is in decline.  The Vietnam war and the desperate conditions of the nation’s poor and its cities – which make space flight seem, in comparison, like an embarrassing national self‑indulgence – have combined to drag down a program where the sky was no longer the limit.”

Tighter budgets, imposed by the Nixon administration, had been a major impediment to space exploration, and amongst NASA officials there were concerns whether the money spent in space exploration were money well spent. In the meantime, the  technological and scientific priorities of the administration had been changed. In a statement  issued on 7th March, 1970, Nixon said that while space exploration was worthwhile, and that a “great nation must always be an exploring nation”, a space effort should also have practical applications and produce benefits for life on Earth. He stated that “We should hasten and expand the practical applications of space technology,” because “many critical problems here on this planet make high priority demands on our attention and our resource.”

In less than six months after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, NASA announced the cancellation of Apollo flights. Thomas Paine’s dream to go to Mars died with a whimper.

Until now.  On September 2016, in Guadalajara, Mexico, at the 67th International Astronautical Congress, the SpaceX founder Elon Musk has disclosed his ambitious vision for manned missions to Mars, which he said could begin as soon as 2022.

A few months later, on 21st March, 2017, President Trump signed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017. The mandate: get people to Mars by 2033.

Sources and further reading:
  1. Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, May 25, 1961,
  2. National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958,
  3.  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
  4. Homer E. Newell, “Beyond the Atmosphere:Early years of Space Science” Appendix J, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (1980) []. Available from NASA History Series SP-4211
  5. Humans to Mars: Fifty Years of Mission Planning, 1950–2000, David S. F. Portree, Monographs in Aerospace History #21 NASA SP-2001-4521
  6. Launius, Roger D. “Public Opinion Polls and Perceptions of US Human Spaceflight.” Space Policy 19, no. 3 (2003): 163–75. doi:10.1016/S0265-9646(03)00039-0.
  7.  Nicky, Woolf, SpaceX founder Elon Musk plans to get humans to Mars in six years
  8. President Donald J. Trump signs NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017,
  9. Featured image: A view of the Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle as it returned from the surface of the moon to dock with the command module Columbia. A smooth mare area is visible on the Moon below and a half-illuminated Earth hangs over the horizon. Source: 


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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