Science, Now + Beyond

The first global selfie happened yesterday, 70 years ago

On October 24, 1946, members of the United States military snapped the above photograph of the Earth using a combination of unlikely devices.

Whether you’re a Star Trek nerd or a Star Wars fan, we can all agree that outer space is pretty cool.

What’s even cooler than outer space? Well, since many of us won’t have the opportunity to visit outer space: photos of outer space. For space enthusiasts, yesterday marked a special day in the history of photography: the 70th anniversary of the first photo of Earth taken from outer space.

On October 24, 1946, members of the United States military snapped the above photograph of the Earth using a combination of unlikely devices. During World War II, the U.S. military obtained a number of Nazi V-2 ballistic missiles and then transported them to the White Sand Missile Range in southern New Mexico for aerospace experiments. One October day, some of the scientists at White Sands decided to strap a 35-millimeter motion picture camera to a V-2 ballistic missile and launch it into outer space. That’s the kind of science we’ve always dreamed of.

The gerry-rigged camera/missile combination made it 65 miles into the air and crossed the Karman line, the border between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, and managed to snap several photographs before spiraling back down to Earth. When the missile slammed back into the surface of the Earth, the camera itself was completely destroyed. However, the White Sands scientists had the good sense to protect the camera’s film by building a specially reinforced case for it–and when they retrieved the film they were rewarded with the first photograph of the Earth from outer space.

What did we have before?

Before the White Sands photograph, the only photo ever taken of the Earth was snapped from the Explorer II balloon at 13.7 miles (not yet in outer space but just high enough to see the curvature of the Earth).

While the White Sands photo might not seem terribly impressive to us, it’s an awesome reminder of how far we’ve come. Remember, 1946 was a good decade before Russia launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, and twenty years before Apollo 11 put the first man on the moon.

What happened after?

The White Sands photo paved the way for future space exploration and photography. In 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission, astronaut William Anders snapped what is perhaps the most famous photograph of the Earth: Earthrise. On Christmas Eve in 1968, Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit and the on-board astronauts held a live broadcast where they showed off the photographs they had recently taken from Earth. Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell expressed a sentiment that many people echo when seeing Earthrise for the first time: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”

In 1977, Voyager I snapped another iconic photo of outer space: Pale Blue Dot. The first “portrait” of the solar system, Pale Blue Dot is a fuzzy photo of what appear to be three rainbow lines, but actually shows the Earth from 4 billion miles away! In the photograph, the Earth takes up only 0.12 pixels and falls right in the middle of a scattered light ray from the sun.

Since then, hundreds–if not thousands–of photographs have been taken in outer space and of the Earth. The United States’s space program has launched missions to Mars and into the distant corners of the galaxy. And while the White Sands photo might seem insignificant in the midst of all this progress, it is likely that this single photograph inspired a generation of scientists to ask “What else is out there?” Thanks for the inspiration, White Sands, we can’t wait to see what else we discover beyond our planet.