All Weather News

The Future in the Past: Satellite Painting Becomes Reality

30 Mar 2017, 4:38 am

In the annals of satellite history, Dr. Harry Wexler, director of meteorological research for the U.S. Weather Bureau (the precursor to the National Weather Service), stands out as a true visionary. Not only did he play a part in the development of RADAR, airborne observation, sounding rockets, the use of computers for numerical weather prediction, and other weather-forecasting technologies, but he is routinely placed among the first to consider the potential benefits of meteorological satellites.

As far back as the early 1950s, Wexler promoted the idea that satellites would be of “great value,” for both warning people about approaching severe weather and gathering information about the atmosphere.

In prepared remarks for a 1956 address to the American Astronautical Society, Wexler wrote:

“Since the satellite will be the first vehicle contrived by man that will be entirely out of the influence of weather, it may at first glance appear rather startling that this same vehicle will introduce a revolutionary chapter in meteorological science–not only by improving global weather observing and forecasting, but by providing a better understanding of the atmosphere and its ways.”

Yet, despite his advocacy, it seems Wexler knew he needed to do more than tell his colleagues about the scientific advantages of satellites, he had to show them, which he did in 1954.

Life Inspires Art

According to James Fleming, author of “A 1954 Painting of Weather Systems as Viewed from a Future Satellite,” Wexler commissioned a drawing of what a satellite would “see” from orbit.

This image from a V-2 rocket flight in 1947 that showed clouds from 100 miles above the surface is said to be one of the photographs that inspired Wexler to commission the drawing.

Wexler had been inspired by photos from a V-2 rocket flight in 1947 that showed clouds from 100 miles above the surface, and an Arobee rocket launch in 1954 that showed the location of an unknown tropical storm in Gulf of Mexico. These images prompted Wexler to wonder: “What would be seen from the vehicle at some 4,000 miles above Amarillo, Texas, if it were exactly noon this time on June 21?”

To find out, Wexler commission a work* of art in 1954 – approximately four years before the launch of Explorer-1, the first U.S. satellite – that illustrated this scenario. According to Fleming:

“An attempt has been made to portray the scene under the assumption that the sun is directly overhead. The surface features of the Earth were first drawn by taking into account its normal color and reflectivity of sunlight, and the scattering and depleting effects on the passage of light through the Earth’s atmosphere. Albedo values were assigned to various cloud types and their brightness computed. A colored drawing was made ….”

The result was a remarkable colored drawing of a weather system over North America that, considering it was produced years before the first satellite went into space, isn’t too far off from what we see in the satellite imagery of today.

Dr. Harry Wexler, director of meteorological research, U.S. Weather Bureau, commissioned this drawing in 1954. It shows the weather systems over North America as they might appear from a satellite 4,000 miles above Amarillo, Texas, on June 21. 

As noted in Fleming’s description of the drawing, “Surface features are drawn taking into account Earth’s normal colors, reflectivity of sunlight, and scattering and depleting effects of light passing through the atmosphere, with calculated brightness of various cloud types.”

Mystery Solved

For a time, the whereabouts of the drawing were something of a mystery. Fleming’s article, which was published in 2007, implies that the painting’s location is unknown and possibly lost to history. In fact, as Fleming writes in the piece, he was “thrilled” just to find a color photograph of the drawing in Wexler’s papers.

“I had looked for the color image, to no avail, in the National Archives, NOAA Central Library, and elsewhere. Thinking I would simply return the [February 3, 1958 copy of Aviation Week with a black-and-white image of the drawing on the cover] to its archival box, a color photograph fell out of the front of the magazine. I whooped for joy. Librarians and patrons looked askance. Here it was, a photograph of the color [drawing] Wexler had commissioned in 1954.”

As it turns out, the painting hasn’t been lost at all. In fact, it’s hanging on the wall of a frequently used conference room on the 8th floor of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Harry Wexler, deemed one of the great figures of 20th century meteorology, was among the first to consider the use of meteorological satellites. According to the European Space Agency, Wexler was introduced to the idea of geostationary orbit by British science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke.


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