Predicting the weather changed forever 50 years ago

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At left: The TIROS-1 satellite in 1960 before its launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. At right: The 44th and final TIROS spacecraft at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Credits: NASA (left); Lockheed Martin Corp. (right).

For much of man’s history, the best way to forecast the weather was to look outside.


But that all changed on April 1, 1960 -- exactly 50 years ago to the day -- when the world’s first weather satellite lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

With the satellite, people could not only better plan outdoor weddings and camping trips, they could also be forewarned of devastating storms coming their way.

In today’s world, if you want to know the weather forecast, you can turn to plenty of websites, phone applications and television channels to get your fix. That’s all thanks to a technology that was born with that first satellite built for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

Affixed with two cameras and two video recorders, the Television Infrared Observation Satellite, known as TIROS-1, sent back it its first image -- which NASA described as “a fuzzy picture of thick bands and clusters of clouds over America.” But just a few days later, the agency said, the satellite proved its worth when it revealed a typhoon about 1,000 miles east of Australia.

‘This satellite forever changed weather forecasting,’ Jane Lubchenco, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator, said in a statement. ‘Since TIROS-1, meteorologists have far greater information about severe weather and can issue more accurate forecasts and warnings that save lives and protect property.’

The first TIROS satellite was developed and assembled by RCA Astro Electronics in East Windsor, N.J. The company became part of Lockheed Martin Corp. in 1995.

In the last decade, TIROS satellites have been built in the Lockheed’s manufacturing facility in Sunnyvale, Calif. The last of the 44 TIROS satellites was launched Feb. 6, 2009.

-- W.J. Hennigan