The First Image of Earth Taken From Space (It's Not What You Think)

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A view of Earth from a rocket-launched camera, October 24, 1946 (White Sands Missile Range/Applied Physics Laboratory)

The grainy, barely legible image above was taken on October 24, 1946, from an altitude of 65 miles above the surface of New Mexico. It was captured by a 35-millimeter motion picture camera as that camera was propelled skyward on a German V-2 missile. It is, officially, the first photo of Earth to be taken from space.

Given that we are currently awaiting high-resolution color images transmitted from a robot we've just placed on Mars -- and given that we are able to track that robot's progress through cameras that we have long since launched into space -- a black-and-white image shot from a mere 65 miles above the ground may not seem like much. In 1946, though, that image was a very big deal. Prior to that, the closest we'd come to documenting the earth from beyond its boundaries came courtesy of the Explorer II balloon, which -- just a decade earlier, in 1935 -- had ascended to a mere 13.7 miles above the Earth's surface.

The progress in terrain-tracking came, actually, as a result of something very earthly: war. As Smithsonian's Air & Space magazine describes it, the U.S. Army, after its World War II victory, had put some of its captured V-2s to work for experimental purposes. American military engineers fired their former enemy's missiles and used findings from those launches to refine the designs of their own weapons. But they also invited scientists to make use of the missiles' empty nosecones for research instruments that would measure atmospheric factors like temperature, pressures, and magnetic fields. Clyde Holliday, an instrument specialist at Johns Hopkins's Applied Physics Laboratory, took advantage of that opportunity, and created a camera that would -- maybe! but also maybe not! -- be able to capture images as it hitched a ride on a missile.

That New Mexico field -- the famous White Sands Missile Range -- would become, on that day in 1946, the proving ground for Holliday's contraption. And as it was tested, the scene rivaled the tension and excitement we witnessed at NASA Mission Control last night. The missile used in the image-capture experiment -- V-2 #13 -- had, like all missiles, been sent up to the heavens only to return, fitfully, to the earth; this particular vehicle plummeted back to the ground at a rate of 500 feet per second. Though Holliday had taken precautions to protect the camera it carried from damage -- he and his team had enclosed the camera itself in a steel cassette -- he and his fellow spectators weren't sure whether that camera, or the images it had captured, would survive the crash. 

But they did survive. And when the group of soldiers and engineers watching the launch of V-2 #13 discovered that the film had, indeed, withstood the crash, "They were ecstatic," recalls one soldier. And "they were jumping up and down like kids." When the group brought the upper-atmosphere-traveling film back to be projected -- and saw those first images of the planet from beyond its borders -- "the scientists just went nuts." 

Sounds nicely familiar.

Via Neatorama.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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