This Space Available

By Emily Carney

This weekend, many of us on the United States’ eastern coast made preparations for Hurricane Dorian, the devastating tropical cyclone that has been parked over the Bahamas for close to an entire day. While Dorian’s slow speed and reluctance to turn away from Florida’s east coast have been the butt of many memes and Facebook jibes, current meteorological satellites such as GOES-16, along with ground-based radar, have provided incredible, often stunning visual data related to the historic storm. If these technologies hadn’t been developed, early hurricane warnings in place – so common to Florida and its surrounding landmasses – wouldn’t exist as we know them today.

How did this happen? Enter the Nimbus program. While technologically they are many miles apart, the aforementioned satellite’s heritage owes greatly to the Nimbus program; between 1964 and 1978, seven Nimbus satellites were successfully launched, ushering in an era of many firsts – most notably, according to NASA, the program was the “first to provide daylight and night-time pictures of intense hurricane clouds viewed from space, which initiated the use of satellite technology to provide hurricane warnings.” (One Nimbus satellite was lost in a launch failure on May 18, 1968; an article about this loss is linked here.)

From NASA: “Nimbus-A [renamed Nimbus 1 after launch], an advanced meteorological satellite, was launched August 28, 1964, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on a Thor-Agena B launch vehicle. The satellite was designed in two sections. The lower circular ring housed the meteorological sensors and electronics. The upper hexagonal section contained the altitude control system and had two solar panels with 10,500 individual panels on each side. Nimbus-A weighed 830 lbs. and was comprised of 40,000 components. The satellite was built by General Electric Company and remained operational until September 22, 1964.”

While weather radar did exist in the early 1960s, it was still somewhat rudimentary. While the first Nimbus satellite had a short operational existence of less than one month, shortly before it failed on September 22, 1964, it sent back images of Hurricane Gladys at day (via television) and at night (via infrared imaging). While this kind of imagery may seem unexciting today, at the time this proved to be a game-changer in how meteorologists viewed and tracked these types of storms. During an era where spaceflight heroics performed by space-suited men were being championed all over the pages of LIFE and Time, and humans began looking out from the confines of Earth’s gravity, Nimbus 1 and its descendants quietly pioneered the field of looking at our own planet from space. Both accomplishments are just as noble.

Another technology begun by Nimbus, according to the space agency, “[demonstrated] the first technology that allowed satellites to track movements of people, animals and items on Earth.” This early use of GPS technology, first demonstrated by Nimbus 3 launched in 1969, would aid in search-and-rescue efforts – another lifesaving benefit that underscored how spaceflight spinoffs could save scores of humans on Earth.

Does Nimbus look familiar to you? There’s a reason for that. The first three Landsat satellites, launched respectively in 1972, 1975, and 1978, utilized Nimbus’ bus (basic design). The Landsat program continues to monitor global changes; while it’s not touted as one of the most “glamorous” programs, it has been one of the most useful ones for scientists monitoring environmental trends for nearly 50 years. NASA has stated, “Nimbus paved the way for future Earth-observing systems such as Aqua, Terra, Aura, Landsat, Sea-Viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWiFS), Tropical Rain Measuring Mission and many more.”

Within the last 50 years, thanks to Nimbus and subsequent Earth-observing satellites, severe weather warnings have filtered down to thousands via television, radio, and now, through smartphones, undoubtedly inspiring people to quickly get to higher ground and shelter. Simply put, spaceflight saves lives.

Featured Image Credit, NASA: “Hurricane Gladys, as seen by NASA’s Nimbus 1 satellite in September 1964. Hurricane Gladys traveled over the U.S. East Coast, Bermuda and Canada.”


Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010. In January 2019, Emily’s This Space Available blog was incorporated into the National Space Society’s blog. The content of Emily’s blog can be accessed via the This Space Available blog category.

Note: The views expressed in This Space Available are those of the author and should not be considered as representing the positions or views of the National Space Society.

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