The Day the Nimbus Weather Satellite Exploded
Growing up, my grandfather was largely a stranger to me. He quietly puttered on various projects, playing the supporting role to my grandmother’s vibrant presence. But then her Alzheimer's came, disassembling her brain as easily as taking apart a puzzle, erasing her memory and then her personality—until we lost her entirely.
Her death had an unexpected effect. It brought my now 96-year-old grandfather, Isaiah Sheldon Haas, out of his shell. Stories of a lifetime of adventure began pouring out: his years as a code-breaker in World War II, visits to China as a General Electric ambassador, working as an engineer at NASA at the height of the Space Race. But by far the most dramatic tale is the story of the Nimbus weather satellite explosion.
The project came into his life in 1966, with a phone call from his old boss, Leon Farnham, who was offering him another job. At the time, my grandfather—known to everyone who knows him as Sheldon—had just been promoted as a General Electric engine and aircraft manager, a role higher than he ever dreamed of attaining, so he wasn’t giving it up easily. “I’m happy,” he said.
“You’ll like it,” Farnham countered. “Nimbus program manager.”
His response: “What the hell is that?”
At the time, NASA’s Nimbus program was still in its early days. The first Nimbus satellite launched in August 1964, kicking off a series of Earth-observing craft that would give scientists an unprecedented picture of evolving weather systems worldwide. Roughly the size of two Jeeps stacked atop one another, the 825-pound satellite was the first test of next-generation meteorological research tools. Dubbed “the butterfly” after its two expansive, rotating solar panels, it was equipped with the most advanced imaging systems of the day.
The Nimbus satellites were a story of firsts: the first to globally map photosynthetic organisms; the first to measure profiles of ozone (a potent greenhouse gas), temperature and water from space; the first to capture developing hurricanes and more. Each successive mission—there were seven in all—carried increasingly complex experiments hundreds of miles into the sky to monitor and image our planet.
The data from the Nimbus instruments also allowed scientists to begin developing computer models to forecast weather a week or even two in advance, virtually impossible beforehand. A National Academy of Science-National Research Council report estimated that this type of long-range weather prediction would save more than $2 billion per year for industries as diverse as transportation and fishing. The impacts from Nimbus can still be felt today, from modern weather forecasting and climate science to GPS and search and rescue systems.
“Nimbus made a mark on meteorology that remains today. It measured the air temp, it measured the winds, it measured the rain,” I was told by Ralph Shapiro, Nimbus spacecraft operations manager who oversaw all seven satellites, the last of which launched in 1978. “It just advanced weather forecasting immensely.”