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: https://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/earthday/gall_tiros.html

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”.

Dryden’s view was dominant among NASA’s leadership, but there were also a few people who believed that NASA’s scope should be broader and have a “public utility” aspect. One of them was William L. Pickering, the foresighted director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Pickering openly disputed Dryden’s R&D approach. He believed that NASA should keep its dominant role in space exploration, but he also thought that there was a fundamental political problem for NASA to focus only in this role.   Space exploration required a great deal of money and a considerable amount of time; it wouldn’t be easy to convince taxpayers to fund long-term prestigious missions in space that they really don’t understand. Practical earthly applications, such as the utilisation of communications and environmental satellites was a “basic political necessity”, Pickering argued,  that could provide advantages to NASA as it would appear connected to people’s everyday needs.

But it was 1961, the middle of the cold war. Since the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, anxiety dominated the feelings of the politicians and civilians in the U.S. To be the first in the space race was a matter of national pride for many Americans and many people in the U.S. pushed towards making this a reality. President Kennedy, a strong supporter of space exploration, urged the nation to “set sail….on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked”. And popular science-fiction television programmes, such as “Men into Space”, and later “Star Trek” continuously boosted their audience’s interest in the emerging space race while celebrating American technology and heroism that had been threatened by the Soviet’ success.

A few days after President’s Kennedy inauguration, James E. Webb became NASA’s administrator with Dryden as his deputy. As his precedent before him, Webb ignored Pickering’s “public utility” and “earthly aspects” arguments. Instead NASA initiated on May 1961, the development of the Apollo lunar programme. Only a few months later, the editors of Aviation Week and Space Technology wondered if the Apollo programme worth the price paid and warned NASA that the American people expected these huge investments in space to have considerable benefits for taxpayers. Articles that appeared in the national newspapers, pointed out that the scientific and technological priorities of the U.S. were not going in the right direction. It was argued that earth’s environmental problems such as clean air and water were not getting the same attention as space exploration. James Reston of The New York Times began attacking NASA’s spending, and particularly the agency’s spending to the Apollo programme. The message reached to White House and in order to avoid further criticism and opposition, President Lyndon capped total NASA spending.

Faced with increased external and internal pressure, James Webb thought that now was the time to set up NASA’s earthly applications role, but he found strong resistance from some of the agency’s top managers, especially Hugh Latimer Dryden, who rejected the proposals of NASA’s cooperation role to Earthly applications. Earth pictures taken from space were not of great scientific value, he said.

Kim McQuaid,  “Selling the Space Age” NASA and Earth’s environment, 1958-1190” Environment and History, 12-2(2006), 131.

John F. Kennedy, “Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort” (12 September, 1962) [http://www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/Archives/Reference+Desk/Speeches/JFK/003POF03SpaceEffort09121962.htm] available from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Jeffrey Sconce,Science Fiction Programs” [http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/S/htmlS/scienceficti/scienceficti.htm] available from The museum of broadcast Communications.

James Reston, “Washington; The Man on the Moon and the Men on the Dole” New York Times, Friday, 5 April, 1963, p.35

James Reston, “Washington; What Government Officials Do You Believe? Fact or Propaganda The Contradictions”, Wednesday, 24 April, 1963, p.26

W.H. Lambright, “Powering Apollo, James W. Webb of NASA”, , Baltimore, John Hopkins, 1995