Feature image: The 1st photo of Earth from space shows a look at the clouds from above. The image is from October 24, 1946. Image via White Sands Missile Range/ Applied Physics Laboratory

Key Takeaway

  1. In 1946, a V-2 rocket launched from New Mexico captured the first photograph of Earth from space, revolutionizing our understanding of the planet.
  2. The rocket’s motion picture camera diligently snapped frames during its ascent and survived the impact, securing the precious images.
  3. Scientists and recovery teams celebrated with excitement as they witnessed Earth from an unprecedented altitude of 65 miles.
  4. Prior to this breakthrough, the highest images of Earth were taken by the Explorer II balloon in 1935, reaching 13.7 miles above the surface.
  5. The iconic V-2 photos allowed people to imagine how Earth might appear to extraterrestrial visitors arriving from space.

The year was 1946 when history was made as the world saw its very first photograph of Earth taken from space. A daring group of soldiers and scientists launched a V-2 rocket equipped with a 35-mm motion picture camera from the New Mexico desert. The rocket soared to an astonishing height of 65 miles (105 km) above the Earth’s surface, surpassing NASA’s definition of the edge of space. The camera diligently snapped a frame every second and a half during its ascent, only to plummet back to Earth a few minutes later, destroying itself on impact. However, the precious film survived unharmed, capturing this momentous event for posterity.

The excitement and joy were palpable among the scientists and recovery team when they retrieved the film from the V-2 shots. The film was encased in a steel cassette, which protected it during the rocket’s crash landing. Back at the launch site, the images were projected onto a screen, and the scientists were overjoyed, celebrating like ecstatic children. Before this breakthrough, the highest pictures of Earth were taken by the Explorer II balloon in 1935, reaching 13.7 miles in altitude, enough to discern the Earth’s curvature. However, the V-2 cameras surpassed this record by reaching more than five times that altitude, revealing the Earth set against the vast blackness of space. These iconic images marked a pivotal moment, allowing people to envision how Earth might appear to extraterrestrial visitors arriving on a spaceship.

Another early image from space

In a momentous achievement on March 7, 1947, a groundbreaking event unfolded in the New Mexico desert. A team of soldiers and scientists witnessed a marvel that had never been seen before – the first-ever pictures of Earth from an altitude exceeding 100 miles in space. This extraordinary feat occurred not long after the conclusion of World War II and several years prior to the space age ignited by Sputnik’s launch. The visionaries behind this revolutionary milestone included John T. Mengel, an esteemed NASA pioneer who spearheaded the Vanguard Program and experimented with captured German V-2 rockets.

Image Credit: Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

Mengel’s upper atmosphere experiments took flight as he launched V-2 rockets into near-earth orbit, replacing their warheads with specially designed research nose shells housing cameras. Prior to the Small Steps Program’s inception in 1946, which utilized V-2 rockets for space imaging, the highest images of Earth’s surface were obtained by the Explorer II balloon in 1935, reaching an altitude of 13.7 miles, sufficient to discern the planet’s curvature. However, the V-2 cameras soared more than five times higher, offering clear snapshots of Earth against the backdrop of the vast cosmic void. As these images were painstakingly stitched together, the resulting panoramas from the late 1940s covered vast expanses, capturing over a million square miles in a single glance.

Scientists quickly got better at taking Earth’s picture. Here’s a still frame from about 6 months later, taken from V-2 #21, launched on March 7, 1947. This picture is from 101 miles (162 km) up. The dark area on Earth at upper left is the Gulf of California. Image via White Sands Missile Range/ Naval Research Laboratory/ Wikimedia Commons.
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