Historical Markers
The First Weather Satellite Historical Marker
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The First Weather Satellite

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
S. State Street and Sterling Street, Newtown, PA

Dedication Date:
September 20, 2001

Behind the Marker

This black and white photograph of earth is the first televised picture from space.
The very first television picture from space, taken by the TIROS-I Satellite...
During World War II, warring nations mobilized their scientists, universities and industries to build more potent weapons and more effective equipment. Fearing that some of Germany's weapons-research programs were far more advanced than Allied projects, Britain and the United States also exchanged scientific information.

Two Grumman Hellcats in flight.
Two Grumman Hellcat fighter planes in flight.
Prior to the fall of France in June 1940, the United States' tiny aircraft industry was preoccupied with increased production rather than new designs. By May 1941, however, the Army Air Corps' Materiel Division was calling for newer airplane designs. American preparations for war and a technology exchange with England prompted rapid innovation in aircraft design. During the next four years, American planes would introduce laminar-flow wings, pressurized cabins, guns controlled remotely by fire-direction computers and other advances.

Both Henry A. Liese and Thomas Lavelle had extensive experience in the aircraft industry. Employed by the Fleetwings aircraft company in Bristol, Pa., for many years, the two men by the fall of 1940 decided to strike out on their own and start their own company. In November 1940, they purchased the old plant of the United States Shuttle and Bobbin Company in Newtown, and founded the Lavelle Company.

Lavelle soon gained a reputation as a quality fabricator of precision aircraft parts. After the United States' entry into World War II, the company grew from five to more than 400 employees, who produced parts for the B-26 Marauder, the Navy's Brewster Buccaneer dive bomber and Grumman Hellcat fighter, and the innovative C-46 Commando cargo plane. Due to the complexity of these designs, Lavelle's engineers and metal fabricators experimented with new materials and methods.

TIROS I satellite on test stand during preliminary test stage.
The TIROS I satellite on a test stand during its preliminary test stage. U.S....
The end of World War II did not end the race for new technologies. Russian detonation of their first nuclear bomb in 1949 escalated the emerging Cold War. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 convinced national leaders that the United States was losing not just the war for scientific and technological supremacy, but the Cold War itself. In January 1958, General Homer A. Boushey, the deputy director of Air Force research and development, warned that Russian establishment of space outposts would mean "sure and massive destruction" for the United States.

To re-establish American scientific supremacy, Congress in 1958 passed the National Defense Education Act to fund science education in American schools and the National Aeronautics and Space Act began to provide funds for studying space. The federal government also fueled the nation's aerospace industry with huge cash infusions. Strategic defense demanded defensive and offensive missile systems. Intelligence required spy satellites. And the newly created space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), needed booster rockets and space vehicles.

In the intense early years of the "space race," the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which oversaw all satellite projects, endorsed the U.S. Weather Bureau's plans for a weather satellite, and asked the U.S. Army's Signal Research and Development Laboratory (USASRDL) at Fort Monmouth, N.J., to oversee a weather satellite project called Janus. American strategists were deeply interested not just in the military applications of weather forecasting but also weather modeling and weather control, which might be used as a weapon of war.

One of the nation's largest and most prestigious electronics firms, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) eagerly anticipated the coming deluge of government contracts. In 1955, RCA drew from its vast experience in television technology to begin experiments with television-equipped spy satellites. The USASRDL tapped RCA and its Videcon television technology for what it was now calling TIROS (Television and Infra-Red Observation Satellite).

Engineers from RCA's Astro-Electronics division soon developed plans for TIROS, but they had little understanding of how aircraft metals behaved under the stresses of space. So in 1957, RCA turned to Lavelle. Working in close cooperation, their teams of engineers and fabricators ensured that custom-built parts for new untested aircraft would withstand the pressure changes, stress and fatigue of flight in outer space. RCA then subcontract the fabrication and construction of TIROS I to Lavelle Aircraft.

This black and white photograph of earth is the first televised picture from space.
The very first television picture from space, taken by the TIROS-I Satellite...
Scrapping RCA's poor blueprints, Lavelle set to work, then delivered a well-engineered TIROS I to RCA for testing in 1959. RCA installed its high- and low-resolution television cameras into the 270-pound satellite. Made of aluminum alloy and stainless steel, the eighteen-sided disk-shaped TIROS I was encrusted with 9,200 solar panels to power its camera and data-storage devices. RCA also equipped it with magnetic tape recorders to store ground images when the craft was beyond the range of receiving stations.

Launched on April 1, 1960, TIROS I immediately ran into difficulties. After malfunctioning, its narrow angle camera stopped operating for a month. Seventy-seven days into its mission, TIROS suffered a fatal power failure. Despite these mishaps, TIROS I's 22,952 clear images of weather systems proved the feasibility of video observation of weather by satellites. The U.S. freely distributed TIROS I's images to both China and Russia both as a goodwill gesture and to demonstrate how advanced American research was.

In the decades that followed, Lavelle Aircraft Corporation was one of the nation's most trusted aerospace contractors. Lavelle built six of the total nine TIROS satellites, the Telstar communication satellite which NASA launched in 1962, and Ranger VII, which observed the moon in 1964. Active in NASA's Apollo moon landing program, Lavelle built the antenna head yoke device for the Apollo moon program's Lunar Excursion Module, and constructed the lithium hydroxide canisters used in extravehicular life support suits. During Apollo 13's return to earth in 1970, astronauts utilized these canisters to cleanse the spacecraft's air of deadly carbon dioxide.

In 1976, Henry A. Liese and Thomas Lavelle sold their controlling interest of Lavelle Aircraft Corporation. The company then moved to northeast Philadelphia, where it remained until its disbandment in 1999. Today, Pennsylvania companies like Sechan Electronics Inc. of Lititz and Litton Electron Devices of Williamsport continue to produce launch control electronics for defense applications.
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