Space & Satellite Professionals International

The Orbiter: Satellites and Public Health
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Saving a Life from Orbit

By Tory Bruno, President & CEO, United Launch Alliance
Member of the Space & Satellite Hall of Fame
Matt Desch

Without even being aware of it, space has become a part of our daily lives. It is hard to imagine not having information at our fingertips, an ATM around the corner, or leaving the house without a smartphone and its built-in GPS. But this has become more than a convenience. Space recently saved my life. And it may have saved yours without you even knowing it.

It was a beautiful Colorado spring evening. I was enjoying some unseasonably warm weather on my deck with my wife, Rebecca. We often get these lovely days right after a harsh winter and cherish them, knowing that our weather is fickle and it could quickly return to snow and subzero temperatures. But today, we were just watching some deer amble by and loving the moment. Suddenly both of our iPhones started buzzing. Rebecca pulled hers out and said there was a severe weather warning. So, I harrumphed, pulled out my phone and opened up the Acuweather app, a user-friendly, weather prediction app fed by NOAA’s vast array of weather satellite data and the sophisticated predictive models they enable. Sure enough, a blizzard was predicted for the following evening, complete with hour-by-hour snow depths and wind levels.

Confident that nothing would happen until the following evening, I went to work the next day. It was still warm and it was a glorious sunny morning. We kept an eye on the forecast and by mid-morning, the predictions moved the onset of the blizzard up to the early afternoon. So, we closed the facility at noon and sent our people home. I stayed a little longer.

It was snowing hard when I finally left. By the time I was halfway home, the wind was gusting at 50mph and visibility was near zero. The temperature had plummeted to ten below zero. I passed the phantom shapes of cars already stuck by the side of the road, waiting patiently to be rescued. I had turned on my GPS as a safety net in case I missed a turn. Then, just ahead, I dimly made out flashing lights. The street was closed for an accident and I was vectored off onto an unfamiliar and deserted country road. This was not the day to get lost! Fortunately, my GPS instantly rerouted me home and my 4-wheel drive truck plowed through the two-foot deep snow. I called Rebecca to let her know I’d be late. She kept an eye on my location using the Find My iPhone app. My 25 minute commute was finally over about 3 hours later as pulled into the garage, where I found Rebecca waiting for me with a hot cup of tea and a scolding.

Inconvenient, but, thanks to space-based precise weather predictions, space-based navigation, and space-based communications, I was never in any significant danger. I am willing to bet that you have a similar story. Perhaps it wasn’t snow, perhaps it involved a tornado, hurricane, thunderstorms, or flooding . . . but, it wasn’t always this way.

Colorado blizzard

Towner is a tiny farming community close to where I live. It hasn’t changed much since the turn of the century. In fact, it’s smaller now than it was in the time of my story.

It was another beautiful Colorado spring morning. The weather forecast was more of the same. Little Louise Stonebraker didn’t even bother with a sweater. The school bus pulled in and picked up Louise, the last of its twenty kids and ambled on towards the two-room school house where the teachers awaited the children, ready to start the lessons, and a little worried about keeping the students focused on such a nice day. By mid-morning, however, everything changed.

The bluebird sky had clouded over, and temperatures were falling fast. The weather forecast had not changed so, in an abundance of caution, the kids were put back on the bus and sent home. The bus made it a few miles with winds gusting at 50mph, blasting snow in a horizontal and impenetrable wall. A little while later, the bus slid off the road and was stuck fast, now just another phantom shape in a vast blind of white. The blizzard raged all night and into the next morning. But no one was looking for the children. Terrestrial phone lines were blown down, and no one had a cell phone. The parents assumed the students sheltered at the school. The teachers assumed they were safe at home. After a miserable night, the morning came and weakly filtered some light through the storm. Carl, the bus driver, left the twenty children in the bus and struck out on foot for help. His body was found three miles away, clearly lost, following a fence, having tragically walked right past a farmhouse that was an easy hike from where the bus was stuck. Five of the children also died.

The difference between my story and Carl’s is nothing more or less than space. The Pleasant Hill School Bus tragedy happened before the first weather satellite, Tiros I in 1960, before GPS became operational in 1993, before the first GPS enabled cell phone in 2004, and before the amazing GOES weather satellites became operational in 2009.

Space saves countless lives every year by providing accurate storm predictions, enabling telemedicine to remote locations, increasing farm production with remote sensing, expanding economies by enabling global financial systems, and in so many other ways. And, it has saved my life and yours without either of us even giving it a second thought.

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