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Notes of a curious mind

Tag: satellites

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


“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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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.

Sputnik maybe provided the opportunity to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to boast about Moscow’s supposedly technological superiority but it had a major impact on the United States.  Sputnik 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. It ignited what has been described as a ‘near-hysterical reaction’ on the part ‘of the American press, politicians, and public’.

Edward Teller on Time magazine cover. 18 November, 1957

Senator 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. Time Magazine, 18 November, 1957
  5. The Sputnik Challenge: Eisenhower’s Response to the Soviet Satellite, by Robert A. Divine, Oxford University Press, 2006.
  6. Michael H.Gorn, “Hugh L. Dryden’s Career in Aviation”, Monographs in Aerospace History,  [] Available  from NASA History Office
  7. 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: 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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Climate Histories: The Restless Sphere – IGY and the beginning of the race to space

…to observe geophysical phenomena and to secure data from all parts of the world; to conduct this effort on a coordinated basis by fields, and in space and time, so that results could be collated in a meaningful manner. [1]

In the early 1950s, the American physicist and engineer Lloyd Berkner started to investigate the development of the Earth’s atmosphere but the lack of available data limited his research. He felt that fundamental questions about global-scale environmental processes would remain unsolved unless opportunities are created to collect data on a worldwide basis.[2]

Berkner, a man of great energy, decided to create these opportunities. With several colleagues, he proposed, in 1950, an international geophysical programme modelled on the International Polar Years of 1882-1883 and 1932-1933.  He envisaged a large-scale global programme of intergovernmental cooperation in scientific research, that would allow scientists from around the world to take part in a series of coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena.

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Climate Histories: The emergence of the first interdisciplinary research programme in global climate

In the mid-1970s the evidence about the greenhouse effect and its effect to climate change was growing among the scientific community. Data showed a steady increase of CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere during the twentieth century at a rate of 25 times the historical average. Scientists, influenced by the work of Callendar, Revelle, Suess and Keeling have started to wonder if the worming trend which was occurring in the twentieth century was indeed, due to industrial emissions of greenhouse gases like CO2.  At the same time, they discovered that the biological productivity of the oceans was an important regulator of the way the CO2 built up in the atmosphere, and that the water vapour which had been found to be an important factor in the formation of clouds, could also play a role in the modulation of weather and climate. And as the questions multiplied, scientists were starting to realise that only an interdisciplinary research programme could provide the much needed answers.

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