Postcards from Home: Seeing the Earth from Space
On the wall of the Atmospheric Science Building there were posters for the International Geophysical Year, which was 1957-58, and one of those posters was the western half of the United States as seen by a rocket—one of the rockets that we had captured from the Germans with von Braun. We would launch from New Mexico to explore rockets and to explore space.
There was this fantastic picture that showed the curvature of the Earth, and showed New Mexico and Arizona and California and northern Mexico, and I saw that in the early sixties when we first got there. To me it was more spectacular of the picture we later saw from Apollo, because it was so much earlier.
They had launched the first weather satellite, and here was this first picture of the cloud formations of Earth as seen from space. Those kinds of pictures really affected our view of our planet.
I’m a big fan of the early artistic renditions of the solar system. Chesley Bonestell was the father of astronomical art in the United States. He had seen the first V-2 pictures from New Mexico looking down, and New Mexico had a very specific kind of cloud pattern. There are lots of these little individual cumulus clouds, and they would actually cast a shadow. Bonestell would paint the Earth this way, with these little patchy clouds.
Nobody realized that these clouds were organized into these huge systems; these big cyclonic bands and spirals and so forth. People knew a hurricane was a spiral, but the early artists trying to understand what the Earth would look like from space didn’t sense the extent of it —they painted all the clouds as sort of separate little clouds because that’s what you could see from the V-2 photographs in New Mexico. So that first picture coming in from a weather satellite, and the idea that they were going to be able to track these systems, was an amazing thing to look to.
The first picture of Earth from space was not taken by the astronauts. It was taken by the orbiter. It got the horizon, and there was the Earth. It was not in color, it was in black and white, but there was the Earth. That was the first picture of the Earth ever taken from a great distance. It was amazing.
Now the public really didn’t know about that photograph very much. But when the astronauts returned the first pictures of the Earth from the Moon—that was Apollo 8—it kind of shocked people. The reason it shocked people: Here was this little blue marble sitting there in black space, and you could hardly see the atmosphere. Then I think it dawned on people, wow, we live in a precarious environment, and the only thing separating us from death is this thin atmosphere of oxygen and nitrogen.
There was one very interesting picture especially, taken from the Moon. You could see the oceans of the Earth, and the clouds. That’s something to think about. That’s worth contemplating.
You put a picture of the whole Earth from space in your class, and you ask the audience when they saw that. Young people cannot answer that. You cannot answer that, most likely, because you’ve grown up with it. Whereas people my age saw the transition, of being able to see part of the Earth to the whole Earth. It is speculated that that new view of the Earth as a whole from space inspired the whole environmental movement, and certainly has changed the way generations of people around the globe think of themselves as fitting into the universe. Not just one locale; now we think globally. What price do you put on a single picture that had that impact? It’s priceless.
I don’t think it was so much seeing the Earth from the Moon: It was being on the Moon. Man was up there. You could look up, and people were up there. Because I had my telescope, I would look at the landing site and see the mountains and see the craters and I knew there were people down there. I could look in the window at the television and see those mountains. That was an amazing connection to me.