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A look back with satellite meteorologist Tim Schmit

NOAA Oral History 50th Anniversary Series
January 28, 2020

For NOAA’s 50th anniversary, we are highlighting oral history interviews from 24 employees -- some retired, some still working -- who have made a mark on the agency. Oral historian Molly Graham walks us through their NOAA legacies and the life experiences that led them here.

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Tim Schmit, a satellite meteorologist with NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service in Madison, Wisconsin, likes to say he spent his entire career in one building… even in the same cubicle. After getting degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Madison focusing on meteorology and satellites, Schmit stayed on as a cooperative institute researcher and began working on his first launch for the GOES-8 satellite. 

He joined NOAA in 1996 and has been instrumental in GOES launches 9-17 from beginning to end, ensuring that high-quality data and imagery is available to users. Schmit’s work on the Advanced Baseline Imager - the primary instrument on NOAA’s GOES-R series for imaging Earth’s weather, oceans and environment - has helped set international standards for weather satellites. 

Hear a snippet of the interview recorded Oct. 27, 2019:

National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service
Tenure at NOAA: 1996-present
Timothy Schmit
National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service
Tenure at NOAA: 1996-present

Transcript: 

On becoming a meteorologist… 

TS: I remember growing up, at the kitchen table, I thought this was just normal, that everybody’s dad talked about electron carrier concentrations and how to grow crystals and substrates and carrier concentrations. I remember the concept of if you look at, say, a parking lot in the visible and it’s all smoky, you don’t see anything; you just see the smoke. But if you look at it in the infrared, my dad would explain how you can see maybe one part of an engine of a car would be hot. Well, that must mean it must have just got here. Or maybe there’s a part of the parking lot – there was a strange cooler rectangle. Well, that must have been where a vehicle used to be. This whole concept of remote sensing, I was always intrigued in as a kid.

Seventh grade is when we did in school one of these career fair activities. So I took an aptitude test, where you filled in the bubbles on the sheet of paper that then get sent away, [and] come back. Meteorologist was one of the jobs that the aptitude test pointed towards. Then we studied in the library, etc, to look at different schools. Minnesota didn’t have a meteorology department; Madison, Wisconsin did. I researched a little bit more. So in seventh grade, I thought I should get a master’s degree in meteorology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Fast-forward, I have a master’s degree in meteorology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

On being recognized as an American Meteorological Society fellow, thanks to his team’s work in satellite launches…

TS: And then most recently, I was awarded to become a fellow of the American Meteorological Society, and they have rules that only a small fraction of a percent of theirs can become fellows. I don’t quite understand the whole process, but only AMS, American Meteorological [Society], fellows can nominate other fellows, and it’s a rigorous process to go through. Mostly it means when you go to the AMS meeting, you get to wear a little pin that says “AMS Fellow.” [laughter]

It only recently occurred, so maybe I’ll have to get back to you what it really means. But what it really does is it reflects on the work I was able to do, but really the team here. Because, obviously, as we mentioned, there’s building satellites, there’s getting satellites to launch, there’s weather support through the launches, there’s operations, there’s all the work that’s on the research side that then gets into operations, and operations to ultimately get people to make decisions differently. If any one of those pieces weren’t working, it wouldn’t matter how crisp of a paper I wrote and was read in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Listen to the full interview with Tim Schmit.