As we marvel at the first closeup images of Pluto that are streaming in from the New Horizons spacecraft, keep in mind that it was only in 1966-67 that satellites beamed back the first high-quality pictures of Earth. That major feat came about, in part, through the tenacity of one young aerospace engineer who refused to take no for an answer.
In the early 1960s, AAAS member Roland Boucher was working at Hughes Aircraft Company's space division, where he was tasked with developing communication applications for NASA satellites. "Back then, NASA was in the launch vehicle business ... they didn't build satellites themselves, they had companies like Hughes contracted to do that for them," explained Boucher.
At the time, Hughes was working on NASA's Applications Technology Satellite (ATS), whose goal was to carry a variety of communications, meteorology, and scientific experiments onboard. Oddly though, they had no experiments to place inside the probe. "We reached out to all these professors and colleges, but nothing materialized," he said, adding, "you can't send a satellite up into space with nothing on it."
So, Boucher and his fellow engineers came up with an experiment idea of their own—to place a camera on ATS to take pictures of the Earth from orbit. The idea was to have the camera work like a telescope and scan a small strip of the Earth with each rotation of the satellite. And by tilting the camera slightly for each subsequent rotation, a 2,000-line image of the entire Earth could be produced in 20 minutes.
Until then, the pictures of the Earth taken by low-orbiting weather satellites were TV quality, about 400 lines, and could not show the Earth in its entirety. "They were pretty useless," said Boucher.
Confident that NASA and the U.S. Weather Bureau would jump at the idea, Boucher, prepared a pitch. Much to his surprise, "nobody was interested," he said.
Finally, after two years of effort, Boucher found himself in the office of the U.S. Weather Bureau's chief scientist, Verner Soumi. "I was prepared to give a technical proposal, but that didn't happen," recalled Boucher. He got an instant contract to build the camera.
This video shows the ATS images with the clouds moving. | University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Meteorology.
On December 7, 1966, ATS-1 launched with a Hughes-built, black-and-white "spin-scan cloud camera" onboard. Soon after reaching orbit, it began taking pictures of the Earth. These images and subsequent others, transformed the study of meteorology, and advancement of humankind during the Space Age.
Play the audio slideshow above, you'll hear Boucher and see the historical images of the Earth created by the ATS-1 and ATS-3 cameras.