The first images of Earth are chilling
When the Allies vanquished Nazi Germany in 1945, the U.S. captured(Opens in a new tab) many of the Germans’ powerful V-2 rockets(Opens in a new tab) which, after translation, is short for “Vengeance Weapon Two.”
Those seized rockets didn’t stay in Europe for long. After being transported across the world and pieced together on the windswept, desert plains of southern New Mexico, U.S. engineers (and, controversially, captured Nazi scientists(Opens in a new tab)) launched a technologically-advanced V-2 rocket 65 miles above the planet’s surface on Oct. 24, 1946. In doing so, they captured the first photographs of Earth from space.
And so began an unwritten custom of looking back onto our cloudy planet — even if our spacecraft had other missions, sometimes bound for destinations millions (or billions(Opens in a new tab)) of miles away in deep, uncharted space.
“During almost every mission we turn around and take a picture back home,” said Bill Barry, NASA’s former chief historian. “There seems to be an irresistible tendency to look back at home.”
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Similar to later missions bound for Mars, Jupiter, and beyond, the first picture of Earth wasn’t a romantic endeavor to capture an unprecedented view of the planet. American researchers used the V-2 rocket, fit with scientific instruments, to improve their understanding of the great black ether, space. In this case, they wanted to grasp the origin of galactic cosmic rays (particles from deep space that incessantly bombard Earth), explained Martin Collins, a space historian and curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
“There seems to be an irresistible tendency to look back at home.”
“The photograph was a kind of side effect of this other primary purpose,” Collins said.
When the V-2’s film finally plummeted down to Earth, and survived, scientists at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range were reportedly enthused by the never-seen-before, grainy view. “…when they first projected [the photos] onto the screen, the scientists just went nuts,” Fred Rulli, who recovered the V-2 film from the desert floor after the rocket fell back through the atmosphere and crashed on the ground, told (Opens in a new tab)Air and Space Magazine(Opens in a new tab) in 2006.
The first picture of Earth from space, taken on Oct. 24, 1946.
Credit: White Sands Missile Range / Applied Physics Laboratory
The first images of Earth, though low-resolution and ghostly, arrived at a time when space and defense technology was rapidly advancing. There was the space race, wherein the U.S. famously sent astronauts to the moon but also spent two decades hard at work on a nuclear power-rocket bound for Mars (the disbanded Project Rover). There was the creation of advanced defense missiles(Opens in a new tab), scattered around the country, designed to shoot down Soviet bombers during the Cold War. Even electric guitars were shaped by the futuristic, stratospheric zeitgeist. The first photographs of Earth were a fitting start to this new age.
“It captured that sense of change,” said Collins.
Fourteen years later, Americans didn’t have to wait for any film to plunge through Earth’s atmosphere to glimpse the latest view of the planet.
Now, it was televised.
On April 1, 1960, the TIROS-1 weather satellite transmitted photos back to Earth. The next day, The New York Times published these images(Opens in a new tab) on the front page under the headline: “U.S ORBITS WEATHER SATELLITE; IT TELEVISES EARTH AND STORMS; NEW ERA IN METEOROLOGY SEEN.”
TIROS-1, which was built with the help of the U.S. Army Signal Research and Development Lab, the electronics company RCA, NASA, and others, might have been designed for weather, but it also made a poignant statement on burgeoning satellite reconnaissance, meaning the ability of advancing satellite technology to potentially spy on others’ activities around the world.
“In that 1960s moment, the Cold War context was not lost,” noted Collins.
Orbiting 450 miles above Earth, TIROS-1 lasted for 78 days and snapped 19,389 pictures(Opens in a new tab), including a typhoon east of Australia. More TIROS satellites soon followed, and for years later black and white images of Earth’s swirling atmosphere ended up in newspapers.
As a kid in the 1970s, Jeff Weber, now a research meteorologist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, used to await the daily image of clouds over the U.S., printed each day in the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph. A young, weather-obsessed Weber collected each photo to watch how the weather changed.
“It was so obvious how weather patterns were moving across the country,” said Weber.
Decades later, Weber’s still watching the weather, albeit on computers with imagery taken by significantly advanced National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites — like the one that now spies churning hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean(Opens in a new tab). “I look at satellite imagery pretty much all day, every day now,” he said.
An image captured by TIROS-1 on April 1, 1960.
The Explorer VI Earth satellite snapped this “crude” image of Earth in 1959, a year before TIROS-1 launched.
Credit: NASA Flickr
At the height of the space race, on Aug. 23, 1966, Earthlings received a particularly unique image of the planet, captured from over 200,000 miles away. Three years before Neil Armstrong would cautiously step onto the chalky lunar ground, the robotic craft Lunar Orbiter 1 snapped the first view of Earth taken by a spacecraft near the Moon. But like the V-2 rocket image, the mission wasn’t intended to snap pictures of Earth. It was to collect detailed images of the Moon’s cratered, perilous surface, where astronauts would soon try to land.
In the foreground is a mottled lunar surface pocked with billions of years worth of impact craters. Beyond lies cloud-covered Earth.
“It was great,” NASA’s Barry said of the image. But a picture from Lunar Orbitor 1 didn’t make the front page of The New York Times, like TIROS-1. It didn’t make the second, third, fourth, or fifth pages either. Why, this historic image was buried on page 14(Opens in a new tab). That’s because, by 1966, NASA astronauts had already shot stunning, colorized photographs of Earth, notably the 1965 image of Ed White floating above the vivid, hazy blue atmosphere(Opens in a new tab), connected to a spacecraft by just a tether. Then, of course, came one of the most famous pictures of Earth ever snapped, the “Blue Marble” photo(Opens in a new tab) taken en route to the Moon during the final Apollo mission in 1972. These pictures overshadowed the 1966 image.
“It’s mostly forgotten because of the nice color pictures we got later,” said Barry.
An image of Earth taken by Lunar Orbiter 1 on Aug. 23, 1966.
Robotic endeavors into deeper and deeper space still kept looking back home, long after the pictures of Earth weren’t novel any longer.
Mariner 10 — a spacecraft sent to take images of Venus and Mercury — looked back in 1973, capturing an iconic image of the Moon and Earth from 1.6 million miles away.
Earth and the Moon as taken by Mariner-10.
Our pale blue dot.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
“I used to have a copy hanging in my office,” said Barry.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.”
And on Valentine’s Day in 1990, before NASA sent commands to the Voyager 1 to turn off its cameras for good (to save power), the spacecraft took a picture of Earth from some 4 billion miles away. It’s just a speck of blue.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us,” wrote Carl Sagan(Opens in a new tab).
This story was originally published in 2020 and has been republished with updated information.