Roy Gibson: weather satellites

The European Space Agency's first director general Roy Gibson discusses the early history of satellites use in weather forecasting.

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We had a slightly different job with the meteorologists. Because although it’s fashionable to think that meteorologists immediately saw the value of satellites and thought that they would be much superior to the weather frogs that they’d been using previously for predictions, in fact they were very much against satellites. And for one very good reason, it was going to cost money. And their budgets were made up years ahead, so they had excellent budgets for all the weather stations that they had fixed, and ships moored in all sorts of unlikely places, arrangements with other meteorological services for exchange of data. But when it came to finding fifty or sixty or a hundred million for satellites, I mean they went white around the gills and this just something they … so they fought it very, in my view, unwisely, on the grounds that it wouldn’t be useful scientifically. It’s interesting to think that when the first Meteosat went up, the data used to come down in Darmstadt and the thing used to come down on a television set. And then a man would come in, park his motorbike, come in with his helmet on, and a camera. And he would take photographs of what was on the screen, it was the earth and the clouds. And then the second channel was the water vapour, and he’d take a photograph of that. And then he would say, ‘Good evening all,’ and jump on his motorbike and dash back to the television studios in time for the seven o’clock news, where these images would be shown. And the same was done as we gradually managed to dump these images all over, the same was done for the BBC. But of course now it’s all direct linking. But that’s how it started. And I mention it, not as a kind of crowing exercise, but because it … firstly, it came without a helluva lot of help from the people who eventually were going to use it, from which I derived the lesson that applications are not always immediately welcomed. Space agents shouldn’t think that they’re God’s gift and that automatically what they’re doing can help. You have to get to the stage where these people say, ‘This is wonderful, I’m glad I thought of it,’ and you have to be sufficiently humble to say, ‘Yes, you’re really quite brilliant.’ And I think it’s this, the second law of international relations is that there’s no end to the amount of good that you can do, provided you don’t care who takes the credit for it. 

  • Interviewee Roy Gibson
  • Duration 00:03:21
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Thomas Lean
  • Date of interview 5/22/2010
  • Shelfmark C1379/19

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