Thursday, February 17, 2005

Earth from space--thinking outside the box

Look at a photograph of the cloud-covered sphere of earth, taken from space. It's a supremely beautiful sight, despite its familiarity--a predominantly blue planet liberally swirled with wispy white, and then some muted green/brown accents that constitute the land on which we humans live.

But the sight wasn't always so familiar. And I'm not talking about long ago, before we even knew the earth was round, or had mapped its landmasses. I'm talking about just a few decades ago, before the first pictures came back from the moon.

I'm not so very old, but when I grew up and artists or scientists drew conceptual drawings of the earth from outer space, the globe was always pictured as just that--a globe like those spinning ones in school, tethered to their metal stands (only, of course, without the metal stands). No clouds at all. Despite the fact that we all should have known better--all we had to do was look up at the sky most days to see those voluminous clouds--no one did seem to know better.

I still remember the shock of seeing those first photos (after you click on the link, scroll about halfway down the page for the photo) from the 1969 Apollo moon mission. Not only were the photos surprising, but it was surprising that they were surprising.

No one had thought of what, in retrospect, should have been obvious. The way the earth was thought to look was accepted knowledge, and no one managed to think outside the "box" of our earthbound perceptions. It's easy to be critical in retrospect--how could "they" have been so stupid? (same for pre-9/11 prognostications about terrorist attacks, by the way). But to make the conceptual leap to actually think outside the box--now, that's spectacularly hard.


At 1:01 AM, February 18, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

Not to be a stickler, but didn't they have Earth photos before the moon shot? Maybe not whole-Earth photos, but enough to see the clouds? Alan Shepard made it into space back in 1961, and before that there must have been probes and satellites capable of taking photos. Either way, your main point stands.

At 2:51 AM, February 18, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

I actually did some online research before I wrote the post, to try to jog my memory. Actually, apparently I got the date somewhat wrong, but only by a hair. The first "big blue marble" photos seem to have been taken from Apollo 8 in December of 1968, not 1969. At any rate, they were indeed the first of their kind. Earlier missions either didn't go high enough (their orbits were actually rather low, as I recall), or didn't have the right equipment. I don't know the details as to exactly why, but the first flights did not feature the whole earth color photos with high resolution that only became available with the Apollo missions, and stunned and awed the world. See this website:

At 9:50 AM, February 21, 2005, Blogger Armitaj said...

Almost all manned spaceflights, including right now with the ISS, take place within a very few hundred miles of the earth. Before Apollo 8, the highest a manned spacecraft had got was 850 miles, on Gemini 11. The Apollo 8 crew were the first people to see earth from any distance (240,000 miles) and so the first to see it as a sphere. But everyone would have seen and photographed plenty of clouds through the 60s.

Pre-spaceflight paintings weren't entirely cloudless. Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986) painted lots of space pictures in the 40s and 50s for Life and Colliers, including some of earth with a few clouds.

The first pic of earth from the moon was from an unmanned probe in 1966 and not top quality:

Apart from the quality of the pictures, the excitement of Apollo 8 and 11 and so on was knowing that real people were there holding the cameras in their hands.

At 2:57 PM, February 21, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Thanks, Armitaj, for the addendum. I didn't know that. I was having trouble locating much information online. My guess, though, is that those Bonestell paintings had so few clouds that the whole-earth photos from Apollo still came to most viewers as a stunning revelation. I know they did to me.


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