In 1632 the great Galileo Galilei wrote: “If you could see the Earth illuminated when you were in a place as dark as night, it would look to you more splendid than the Moon.”
When the world’s most iconic photograph – Earthrise – was taken 336 years later, it was greeted by humanity like an infant recognising its own reflection in the mirror for the first time. What had been our whole wide world, the centre of our universe, was actually a fragile but brilliant speck in the vast cosmos.
From the medieval period right up until the 1960s, artists got the shape of the planet right. What they could never quite capture was its true vibrancy and colour.
The Genesis story of God’s creation of land and sea, from the Bible Historiale of John the Good.
John Gower, in his book Vox Clamantis, is depicted as an archer preparing to shoot the world – a sphere with sections representing earth, air, and water. The text above the image reads: “I throw my darts and shoot my arrows at the world. But where there is a righteous man, no arrow strikes. But I wound those who live wickedly. Therefore let him who recognizes himself there look to himself.”
French astronomer Oronce Fine, in his book Le Sphere du Monde, shows a motionless Earth at the centre of the Universe. Above it are the natural realms of water, air, and fire below the spheres of the moon, the planets and the stars.
Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher‘s world, depicted on the cover of his book Mundus Subterraneus, is richly embellished with religious imagery – supernatural beings crowd around the planet, controlling its weather systems.
Geologist Henry de la Beche attempts the first representation of Earth as a cosmic object in space, rather than a symbolic image or a simple map projection. This includes the representation of cloud cover.
Camille Flammarion, in his best-selling Astronomie Populaire, imagines a view of Earth from the surface of the Moon.
In the French silent film le Voyage dans la Lune, Georges Méliès imagines human travellers on the lunar surface waving back to mother planet Earth.
Wladyslaw T Benda‘s image published in March 1918 shows a war-weary Earth. It accompanied an article in Cosmopolitan in March 1918 entitled The Future of the Earth. Its author, Maurice Maeterlinck, wrote: “It is well, sometimes, to tell ourselves, especially in these days of distress and discouragement, that we are living in a world which has not yet exhausted its future and which is much nearer to its beginning than to its end.”
On 24 October 1946, not long after the end of World War II, a group of soldiers and scientists in the New Mexico desert were the first human beings to see pictures of Earth as seen from space. The low resolution black-and-white images were taken by a motion picture camera strapped to a V-2 rocket fired to an altitude of 65 miles above the Earth’s surface. The missile was destroyed when it fell back to Earth, but the film, protected in a steel cassette, was successfully retrieved.
National Geographic artist William Palmstrom used U.S. Weather Bureau records to create a realistic rendition of the Earth for the magazine. However, mankind’s need to use his imagination to visualise the planet was shortly to end.
TIROS-1 (Television Infrared Observation Satellite), launched by NASA on 1 April 1960, was the first successful low-Earth orbital weather satellite, and took the first television picture of Earth from space.
30 May 1966
This first crude television image of Earth as a distinct body in space was made by a Soviet weather satellite on 30 May 1966.
23 August 1966
On 23 August 1966, just as Lunar Orbiter 1 was about to pass behind the Moon, mission controllers pointed the camera away from the lunar surface and toward Earth. The result was the world’s first view of Earth from space.
10 November 1967
The first colour photograph of the whole Earth (western Hemisphere), shot from the ATS-3 satellite on 10 November 1967, finally gave mankind its first true view of home.
24 December 1968
Earthrise, the first colour image of our planet taken by humans from lunar orbit, did more than simply give us a view of our planet – it changed our perception of it, and its fragile place in the cosmos. Captured on Christmas Eve 1968 by the crew of Apollo 8, it was said that ‘they went to the Moon, but ended up discovering the Earth’.
This fragility was later underlined by our final image of Earth, taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 probe as it was departing the Solar System. From a record distance of 3.7 billion miles, Earth (in the centre of the image) appears as a fraction of a pixel against the vastness of space. NASA’s command to Voyager 1 to turn its back towards home for a final time was requested by the great American astronomer Carl Sagan, who said of the “pale blue dot”:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.
“Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
What a cheerful thought.