Jack Townsend, Shepherd of Weather Satellite Technology

November 8, 2011 · 0 comments

The passing of AMS Fellow John W. (“Jack”) Townsend on October 29 serves as a fitting moment to register the evolving national relationship with space technology over six decades.

“Jack Townsend was truly one of the seminal figures in the history of NASA, and certainly, in the history of Goddard,” said current Goddard Spaceflight Institute Director Rob Strain. “The story of the space program simply could not be written without a chapter devoted to him. He dedicated his life to the exploration of space and the study of our planet, and humankind is richer for the knowledge he helped generate.”

Townsend was one of the first employees at Goddard in 1959, where he directed the satellite applications efforts, at a time when the nation was racing to enter the Space Age. He had already cut his teeth on space technology, first in radar countermeasures aboard B-29 bombers in World War II and, by 1949, working with V-2 rockets. Townsend helped bring satellite meteorology to fruition in the 1960s as Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Science Services Administrator (predecessor to today’s NOAA). After a decade at Fairchild Industries, he returned to NASA after the Challenger disaster, and then for three years as Director of Goddard.

Townsend retold the story of the origins of weather satellites just a year ago in an interview with archivist/historian Doria Grimes:

[E]verything started with sounding rockets just after World War II. I went to work for the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) following my graduate degree in physics. The sounding rocket program had just started at NRL and it involved the Army, Navy, and Air Force…. Interestingly enough, at White Sands, New Mexico, we flew rockets out over the desert in the late 1940’s. We put cameras on them called gun sight aiming point cameras, “GSAPs”. The idea of the camera was that as the rocket went up and rotated, it took pictures of the earth in swaths. You would use those pictures to reconstruct the attitude of the rocket.

One day we had a shot in New Mexico in which we caught what looked like a storm in pictures off to the southeast. One of the guys who worked for me, Otto Berg, made a composite picture of nearly 1,000 tiny GSAP pictures, a total mosaic of a storm. It looked exactly like a hurricane, and attracted the Weather Bureau’s attention. It was in the early 50’s – all before Sputnik.

The pictures stirred interest from Harry Wexler at the Weather Bureau, and eventually a classified Army satellite project was moved into the new NASA, gradually became declassified, leading to the first weather satellite, TIROS. It was during this period that Townsend and other American science administrators were involved with negotiating peaceful uses of space technology with their Soviet counterparts.

The subject came up of transferring data. We, at that time, expected to launch the research meteorological satellites. They promised they were going to launch meteorological rockets and satellites. Incidentally, they never did. But they wanted the transferred data because Russian ground data was very sparse, and these data meant a lot to them as a country. With the free transfer of meteorological data and satellite pictures, we had an issue, a big issue. Who pays for the communication expenses between Washington and Moscow? We got into a big fight about that, and the agreement had been to share. The Russians said that since the U.S. owns all these communications facilities, the U.S. should pay for 90% of it. Then the Russians said that the ruble was not worth as much money as the dollar. Finally, I came up with one of the only brilliant ideas I ever came up with. I said sharing means 50/50. We’ll pay the bill for three months, and you pay it for three months….So I cut this deal with the Russians on how to pay for it. [His Russian negotiating counterpart] Blagonravov thought it was funny. He laughed, and said to me, “I am glad I am too old to send to Siberia.” He was a lieutenant general which is a five star rank in those days, and he also was a communist and believed in the system. He was a neat guy and I got to like him.

The whole interview (transcript here) has more on the origins of the space program, NOAA, and operationsl satellites. You’ll get the sense that the field was guided then by strong personalities and a country committed to technology. [For more on the early development of weather satellites, specifically TIROS, check out James Rodger Fleming's presentation on "Transformative Technologies and International Cooperation in the Career of Harry Wexler" at the 2012 AMS Annual Meeting (11 a.m., Tuesday 24 January)].