Wednesday’s Book Review: “Atmospheric Science at NASA”

atmospheric-science-at-nasa-a-history-erik-m-conway-22850-MLM7786999236_012015-OAtmospheric Science at NASA: A History. By Erik M. Conway. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Acknowledgments, list of abbreviations, illustrations, notes, index. ISBN: 9780801889844. Hardcover with dustjacket. 416 pp. $57.00 USD.

During the first decade of the Space Age using remote sensing satellites to study the Earth was in its infancy. Although aerial photography had been used for all manner of scientific efforts ranging from geology to climate monitoring to oceanography as part of interwar era programs, the first conference on space-based observations was not held until 1962. Likewise, overhead reconnaissance had been used since before World War I, and had become standard in the Cold War, but extending this to space-based systems proved difficult. The first program proved successful beginning in the 1960s, but the technologies evolved only with considerable investment.

This is the story that Erik M. Conway, the JPL Historian, tells in this outstanding account. It is amazing that Conway is the first to undertake a legitimate historical investigation of this subject. It is a worthy topic and in Conway it has found an able and effective historian who explain the story in an accessible and illuminating manner.

We find that scientific uses of space-based imagery of Earth could be imagined even before the space age, but bringing it to fruition required significant time and money. A small collection of scientists (mostly geographers and geologists and mostly located either at universities or government laboratories other than NASA) were interested in a scientific observation satellite for monitoring Earth resources even as the Space Age began. NASA early on conducted its first tests of the effectiveness of using space systems for Earth observations. By the mid-1960s, NASA—in consultation with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Army Corps of Engineers—began exploring a potential program for Earth observations designed to aid scientific research and practical applications.

Accordingly, in its first 20 years of existence NASA launched three satellites devoted to Earth observation: the weather satellite Tiros in 1960, the Earth resources monitoring satellite Landsat in 1972, and the oceanographic research satellite Seasat in 1978. From a scientific and technical perspective, these satellites were unqualified successes, delivering promised scientific data of significance to researchers around the globe.

But those meager activities belied a serious effort to lay groundwork in Earth system science pursued by a small group at NASA and elsewhere. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s Division of Aeronomy and Meteorology under William Stroud, with an important offshoot in the Goddard Institute of Space Studies at Columbia University, became heavily involved in coordinating Earth science research in the middle part of the 1960s. It also supported the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP) beginning in 1967 that cut across many organizations, scientific disciplines, and priorities.

Notwithstanding some recent studies that have questioned NASA’s role in the development of Earth system science in the United States during the 1960s, Conway’s study makes clear that there is considerable evidence to support a conclusion that the agency’s managers nurtured scientific activities in this realm, and worked effectively to create networks of researchers who had strong interest in using remote sensing technology to observe and measure aspects of the Earth from space. Without question, data from NASA technology, satellites, institutes, scientists, and organizational initiatives were essential in creating the global picture of the Earth as a system that emerged later.

There was, of course, a tension between NASA’s human spaceflight enthusiasts with their relative disinterest in Earth science, and the researchers interested in science and answers to scientific questions. In NASA those people tended to be self-sorted into the agency’s two big chunks, the human program and the science program. They competed with each other for resources and to outside observers NASA in the 1960s might have been best characterized as “the Moon Agency,” but that was an oversimplification. Even though NASA had no separate Earth science organization prior to the 1980s, entities within the space agency organized to support Earth system science early on.

During the decades since the 1980s, Earth science has become a major aspect of NASA’s mission, competing effectively for agency dollars with the other three major missions, human spaceflight, space science, and aeronautics. Erik Conway lays out in this book the nature of this competition and the place of atmospheric sciences in it. As space robotics technologies matured NASA scientists already involved in environmental science refocused attention on developing a view of the Earth as an integrated, interdependent system using satellite observations to help create global climate models. In 1987, at a time when NASA was reappraising its role in space research and development following the loss of space shuttle Challenger, NASA empowered former astronaut Sally K. Ride to study Leadership and America’s Future in Space. Among other things, the Ride report recommended embracing the “Mission to Planet Earth” concept as a priority for the agency. While there had to be rescoping of the program over time, this report served as the catalyst for an investment of more than $7 billion to build and operate a series of orbital spacecraft, and to analyze data from them for environment purposes. The program’s Earth Observing System (EOS) satellites consisted of a range of remote sensing satellites that collected data in a variety of ranges on air, land, and sea bodies on the planet.

Conway notes how these Earth observing satellites have had a profound influence on human civilization. Climate monitoring satellites have detected and tracked forest fires, volcanoes, and severe storms, as well as documented measures of rainfall and winds, seas and currents, ozone depletion and global warming. This excellent book reviews the institutional and scientific issues associated with conducting Earth science in an organization that was predisposed not to be focused on that activity as pursued space exploration. It highlights that leadership at NASA that helped to form a broad-based, multidisciplinary community of scientists oriented toward understanding planet Earth in much the same way that it sought to understand other planets in the solar system and what this portended for the future of this scientific activity.

This entry was posted in Earth Science, History, Space and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Atmospheric Science at NASA”

  1. spacegary says:

    Sounds like an excellent book and long overdue. Thank you.


  2. Damara Arrowood says:

    It’s always great to read about NASA pioneering research rather than a typical focus on human exploration in spaceflight. There’s a wealth of material for anyone currently in R&D to learn about methodologies, infrastructures, management and leadership. NASA has foundationally been and should continue to be the vanguard in many fields of scientific research. I’m looking forward to not only reading but studying this book!


  3. Jim McDade says:

    I have often wondered if creating an independent “earth science and resources administration” would be more be suitable than leaving it up to NASA to manage that important mission in addition to the equally important exploration, space science, and aviation missions.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s