Seventy Years Ago, Humans Saw Earth from Space for the First Time
On October 24, 1946, photography went suborbital.
The view of Earth from outer space has utterly transformed perspectives on our civilization, our planet, and our relationship to the universe beyond our skies. This Monday marks the 70th anniversary of the day we first saw the planet from this extraordinary, quasi-alien vantagepoint; a pivotal event that occurred on October 24, 1946, at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Snapped from an altitude of 65 miles by a Devry 35-millimeter motion picture camera, the black-and-white image captures the Earth's curvature and the sweep of cloud cover over the American Southwest.
The camera was mounted on a V-2 rocket, a Nazi-developed series of long-range ballistic missiles that Hitler had deployed against Allied targets in London, Antwerp, and Liège during World War II, resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians.
In the final months of the war, American forces accepted the surrender of key German rocket scientists, including Wernher von Braun, who later became the architect of the Saturn V Apollo Program rockets. These spaceflight experts immigrated to the United States in secret under Operation Paperclip, and they brought dozens of their V-2 rockets with them to help kickstart the American space program.
At first, the US Army was mainly interested in feeling out the limits of the V-2 for space exploration and military defense. From 1946 to 1950, teams launched scientific payloads to increasingly higher altitudes aboard the adopted missiles, which yielded about 1,000 of these ground-breaking photos of Earth from space.
The camera's rolls of film were protected from the shattering impact with Earth's surface on the return trip by specialized steel cassettes, which were retrieved from crash sites by military men. Fred Rulli was on the retrieval team that picked up the first images from space 70 years ago, and recalled that the importance of the pictures was appreciated right away.
"[The scientists] were ecstatic, they were jumping up and down like kids." Rulli told Air & Space magazine. "When they first projected [the photos] onto the screen, the scientists just went nuts."
Before this point, the highest images that had ever been captured were taken by the two-man crew of the high-altitude helium balloon Explorer II, which ascended to a record 13.7 miles in 1935. As impressive as that feat was at the time, the first V-2 images from space were taken from an altitude nearly five times that high.
Not surprisingly, the portraits are rudimentary by today's standards. They would later be overshadowed by more sophisticated images such as "Earthrise" or "Blue Marble," captured by Apollo Program crews, or "Pale Blue Dot," taken by the Voyager 1 probe when it was 3.7 billion miles away from the planet. Indeed, the first image ever taken from space hasn't even warranted its own snazzy nickname like its more famous successors.
But what the image lacks in style, it makes up for in novelty. No matter how stunning future views of the Earth become—and they get better all the time—this modest black-and-white scene will always be our first glimpse of our planet from space.
Correction: A previous version of this article characterized Explorer II as a hot air balloon. It was actually a specialized high-altitude helium balloon. The article has been updated to reflect this.
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