“Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Mark Twain
That sage 19th century observation may not hold much longer if NASA has anything to say about it.
Last year, Vanguard 2 was touted as the first weather satellite because it had a pair of photocells designed to measure the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth. This way, scientists could quantify the sun’s effects on our climate. No useful data was obtained, however, since the probe quickly became a whirling dervish. Explorer 7 has a sophisticated radiometer experiment, which is more successfully accomplishing the same mission.
But it was not until yesterday that humanity had an honest-to-goodness weather shutterbug in orbit snapping pictures of clouds from hundreds of miles above them.
The spacecraft is called TIROS: Television InfraRed Observation Satellite. Every 90 minutes, TIROS makes a complete circuit of the Earth, with most of the inhabited surface visible to its twin TV cameras. TIROS’ photos are facsimiled to NASA headquarters (normally—I understand that the very first photos were conveyed via helicopter from the tracking station at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey). They can then be distributed to scientists, weathermen, reporters, the general public.
TIROS’ first picture—compare it to the “photo” returned by Explorer 6!
TIROS is going to usher in a new era of meteorology. Weathermen will make accurate predictions days in advance. Hurricane courses will be mapped, saving lives and property. The President won’t be rained out on golfing days.
Perhaps more importantly, TIROS proves once and for all the practical value of satellites. This isn’t some eggheaded application too esoteric for the public to understand. Nor is it just jingoistic one-upsmanship. When someone asks you why we bother sending craft into space, you can point to TIROS’ picture, the likes of which will soon replace the crude line drawings we currently find in our newspapers.
On a side note, TIROS marks the first homegrown NASA probe. All of the previous Pioneers and Explorers were made by outside contractors (like Space Technology Laboratories) or absorbed facilities (like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory). TIROS was made by NASA’s Goddard Space Center in Maryland, which first started operation in June 1959. I’d say they’ve earned an “A” right out of the gate!
Speaking of reports, we’re at a science fiction convention in Los Angeles this weekend. I’ll try to have a wrap-up soon after the photos are developed. During the con’s down-time, should there be any, I plan to finish Edmond Hamilton’s recently released The Haunted Stars while lounging in a chair by the hotel pool. It’s anyone’s guess whether the convention or the book will get an article first…
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