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Atmospheric Science at NASA

A History

Erik M. Conway

Publication Year: 2008

This book offers an informed and revealing account of NASA’s involvement in the scientific understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere. Since the nineteenth century, scientists have attempted to understand the complex processes of the Earth’s atmosphere and the weather created within it. This effort has evolved with the development of new technologies—from the first instrument-equipped weather balloons to multibillion-dollar meteorological satellite and planetary science programs. Erik M. Conway chronicles the history of atmospheric science at NASA, tracing the story from its beginnings in 1958, the International Geophysical Year, through to the present, focusing on NASA’s programs and research in meteorology, stratospheric ozone depletion, and planetary climates and global warming. But the story is not only a scientific one. NASA’s researchers operated within an often politically contentious environment. Although environmental issues garnered strong public and political support in the 1970s, the following decades saw increased opposition to environmentalism as a threat to free market capitalism. Atmospheric Science at NASA critically examines this politically controversial science, dissecting the often convoluted roles, motives, and relationships of the various institutional actors involved—among them NASA, congressional appropriation committees, government weather and climate bureaus, and the military.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: New Series in NASA History


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p. ix


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pp. xi-xii

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xiii-xvii

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pp. 1-10

On 24 April 2004, the New York Times reported that NASA leaders had issued a gag order to agency scientists barring them from discussing an upcoming film, Day After Tomorrow.1 The film’s plot revolved around the sudden onset of an ice age provoked by global warming. The idea was loosely based on a 1985 hypothesis by Wallace Broecker...

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1 Establishing the Meteorology Program

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pp. 11-38

The International Geophysical Year (IGY), which ran for the eighteen-month period spanning 1957 and 1958, is well known as the formative event of the space race that took place during the 1960s as well as that of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.1 The new American space agency took its initial research agenda from the IGY’s Earth satellite program...

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2 Developing Satellite Meteorology

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pp. 39-63

The numerical weather prediction models developed during the 1950s at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) and at the U.S. Air Force’s Cambridge Research Laboratory were part of the meteorological goal of long-range forecasting. They could forecast the future state of the atmosphere from a known initial state over limited periods...

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3 Constructing a Global Meteorology

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pp. 64-93

In early 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s science advisor, MIT physicist Jerome Wiesner, had asked the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Atmospheric Science to propose a ten-year program for the profession. The report, drafted by meteorologist Sverre Petterssen, called for establishment of a set of new international institutions to further expand...

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4 Planetary Atmospheres

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pp. 94-121

During the long years of the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP), NASA’s space science organization had been busily exploring what space scientists call the terrestrial planets, Mercury, Venus, and Mars. These three, unlike the giant outer planets, are made of rock and metal, in roughly the same amounts as Earth. At the beginning of the space age, there was a great deal of expectation...

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5 NASA Atmospheric Research in Transition

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pp. 122-153

One major factor in the transition of NASA’s meteorological satellite program from an applications program into a more scientific one was a change in the American political scene: environmentalism. The 1950s and 1960s had witnessed a few dramatic air pollution events that had resulted in mass deaths and many more that had generated clear...

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6 Atmospheric Chemistry

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pp. 154-197

During the 1980s, NASA’s planetary program essentially ended. The first planetary launch of the decade was the 1989 Galileo mission, which did not arrive at its target planet, Jupiter, until 1995. Due to the Challenger explosion, the Mars Observer mission approved in 1985 did not launch until 1993. It disappeared right before arriving at Mars...

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7 The Quest for a Climate Observing System

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pp. 198-242

NASA’s atmospheric chemistry programs were only one manifestation of the agency’s effort to improve scientists’ understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere, albeit a very important one. Another was its effort to establish a climate observing system. In 1977, after a National Academy of Sciences study chaired by oceanographer Roger Revelle argued that increasing greenhouse gas emissions would raise global temperatures...

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8 Missions to Planet Earth: Architectural Warfare

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pp. 243-275

The Earth Observing System (EOS) was subjected to cuts every year through 1995. This, in the words of a harsh National Academy of Sciences assessment, resulted in management turbulence.1 Seemingly unending reviews, redefinitions, rescopings, and rebaselinings consumed time, squandered project resources, and demoralized staff. By the time the system definition finally stabilized in 1996...

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9 Atmospheric Science in the Mission to Planet Earth

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pp. 276-311

The seemingly endless arguments over the appropriate architecture for the Earth Observing System (EOS), and the lack of new space hardware between the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite’s (UARS) launch in 1991 and the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) in 1997, did not impair the activities of NASA’s atmospheric science programs...

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pp. 312-320

During its first four decades, NASA developed a sophisticated ability to study the Earth as an integrated global system. It had drawn this agenda in part from its institutional interests in planetary science as well as from larger national concerns in the 1970s about anthropogenic impacts on the global atmosphere. In the process, it generated new knowledge about the global atmosphere...

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pp. 321-324

In January 2006, on a sunny but chilly day in Manhattan, I did a couple of hours’ worth of oral history with James E. Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). At one point he asked me if I knew about a recent publication from one of the science teams associated with the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)...


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pp. 325-374


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pp. 375-386

Image Plates

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pp. PS1-PS8

E-ISBN-13: 9781421401638
E-ISBN-10: 1421401630
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801889844
Print-ISBN-10: 0801889847

Page Count: 416
Illustrations: 8 color illustrations, 19 halftones, 3 line drawings
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: New Series in NASA History
Series Editor Byline: Steven J. Dick, Series Editor See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 607823392
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Atmospheric Science at NASA

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Atmospheric physics -- History.
  • Satellite meteorology -- History.
  • United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
  • Astronautics in meteorology -- History.
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