This article analyzes the formation of space oceanography as a scientific specialty, in France and in the United States. Throughout much of its history, oceanography has relied upon a broad range of instrumentation (bathyscaphes, tide gauges, and so forth). The importance of instrumentation meant that many of the exchanges during major scientific meetings in the 1960s focused on engineering problems. As a result, institutional investments by NASA and the French space agency, the Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) supported advances in instrumentation. The emergence of the climate change issue made it possible to merge several factors (technical, geopolitical, and institutional) into the specialty of space oceanography.

The birth of a scientific specialty requires the conjunction of several determining factors: a powerful disciplinary basis, a technological innovation resulting in major advances, and scientific politicians capable of tackling new problems. The development of space oceanography provides an excellent example of the origin of a new scientific specialty. The purpose of this article is to trace the history of the combination of the technical and scientific factors that resulted in the origin of space oceanography.

This article will focus on specific events that led to the origin of space oceanography, in particular on a series of meetings organized by researchers interested in very specific technical questions. Many of the classical questions of oceanography could be addressed and dealt with by developing and using new instruments (e.g. radar altimeters). To document how the specialty of space oceanography developed, I propose to follow American and French examples of the transformations induced by space oceanography. Such a comparison makes it possible to measure the differential scientific ‘maturity’ of a nascent speciality.

The emergence of climate change research, starting in the 1970s, reorganized many of the oceanographic research questions and legitimized the extension of the discipline into geospatial research. One goal of this article is to understand how this development of science policy influenced interactions between different disciplines.

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