On the evening of April 1, 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower saw the first image sent back from space by the Television InfraRed Observation Satellite (TIROS) 1 weather satellite—shaped, as some quipped, like “an enormous hatbox.” As he considered the grainy black and white image of cloud cover over the eastern United States and Canada, he remarked “the Earth doesn’t look so big when you see that curvature.”
At this moment of a major U.S. accomplishment, Eisenhower perhaps intended a touch of humor. Yet TIROS stood as one key marker of the ways in which the Space Age’s new technologies were shifting the human perspective on our home planet. The launch of the satellite and the distribution of its first images made front page news in the nation’s leading newspapers, each emphasizing the change brought by the space-based perspective. Not least, TIROS highlighted our increasing control of nature through science and technology. As the New York Times described it at the time, the satellite and its successors held the promise “of illuminating vast areas of darkness in man’s understanding of the weather.“
The benefits of such understanding foretold “advances in the unsure art of forecasting, with all that such advances imply economically, in crop planning; socially, in vacation planning; and militarily, in choosing an auspicious time to begin a campaign.” This list captured prominent and prominently intertwined themes in 1960 American life: the Cold War, the nation’s economic vitality, and the benefits of a widely-shared consumer society. Improved knowledge of the weather was not merely a nicety but a vital contributor to national welfare.
As the 1960s unfolded, the TIROS program moved from experimental to an operational effort, providing constant images and data on the Earth’s weather and atmospheric dynamics. After that first public splash in 1960, the program largely receded into the background. New images of Earth, especially those from astronauts during Mercury and Gemini spaceflights, moved to the center of public attention and the deeper question of humanity’s relationship to their home planet. This issue, intimately linked to environmental movement of that era, crystalized with the iconic 1968 Apollo 8 Earthrise and 1972 Apollo 17 Blue Marble images.
But the TIROS story is not one of iconic images. Rather it is one of data collected continuously since that successful 1960 mission—sixty years of research on those “vast areas of darkness.” It has provided the backbone (under a series of new program names) for understanding the most significant environmental issue of our time: the future of Earth’s climate, as humans increasingly alter the physical dynamics of the planet.
Fittingly, TIROS’s 60th anniversary occurs in the same month as the upcoming 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The program’s arc of accomplishments provide a timely reminder of what’s at stake in this Earth Day and for our collective future.