This is the first photograph of Earth ever taken from space. It was captured on 24 October 1946 from a rocket 105 km above the ground that had been launched from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, USA.
The rocket was a German V2, captured by the Americans at the end of World War II. Hundreds of scientists and engineers from the Nazi rocket program were vital to the postwar development of the American and Russian space programs.
Though the V2 had rained terror on London and other cities during the war, in peacetime the explosive warhead was removed and replaced with a package of scientific instruments. These included a 35mm motion-picture camera set to snap one picture every second and a half.
The resulting images, developed from film dropped back to Earth in a tough steel canister, were like nothing that had been seen before. Until this point, the highest vantage point from which photos had been taken was some 22 km, aboard a high-altitude balloon.
The balloon pictures had shown the curvature of the Earth at the horizon, but the rocket photos opened new possibilities. Clyde Holliday, the engineer who developed the camera, saw the potential: in a 1950 National Geographic article, he predicted that one day “the entire land area of the globe might be mapped in this way”.
Michael Lucy is a former features editor of Cosmos.
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