75 years ago, a Nazi rocket took the first photo of Earth from space

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By today’s standards, it’s just a grainy black and white photo.

It takes a minute to distinguish what are smooth white cloud formations floating above the hazy grayscale Earth, a swirl of monochrome against the blackness of space.

NASA astronauts have taken more than 900,000 images from space. But 75 years ago – before Scott Kelly received a Nikon D4 and before the famous Full View of Earth “Blue Marble” – there was this. The very first photograph of Earth seen from space.

It was taken on October 24, 1946. And while more refined images of the Earth would later eclipse it in popular memory, it was a big deal at the time.

“For 1946, this was an incredible accomplishment,” said Michael Neufeld, senior curator in the space history department at the National Air and Space Museum. Reverse. “It was a news item.”

The way the photo was taken was also very important: it was taken with a 35mm film camera housed between the fuel tanks of a captured Nazi V-2 rocket launched from White Sands Missile Range.

It was a single rocket launch from the New Mexico desert that simultaneously sparked the Cold War, the space race, and experimental space science.

How Nazi rockets led to NASA rockets

American scientists and engineers were familiar with the concept of rockets, with Robert Goddard piloting the world’s first liquid-fueled rockets in the 1920s.

But with the collapse of the Nazi regime at the end of World War II, the Allies discovered just how far the Germans were able to push technology further with their V-2 rocket.

A German V-2 rocket captured at White Sands, New Mexico, in 1947. Nasa

“It had been a failure as a weapon because it was a very expensive way to drop a one-ton bomb on an enemy city,” says Neufeld. But it was also “obviously a technological breakthrough that could herald a new era of space vehicles or ballistic missiles,” he adds.

Naturally, the United States – and the Soviet Union – captured as many V-2s as they could find and began to study them, pilot them, and seek to improve them.

“The V-2 was just the harbinger of what was possible.”

National Air and Space Museum curator emeritus David DeVorkin recounts Reverse that “the first efforts on the American side were to first build a device that could protect us from something like a V-2, then build our own.”

“The V-2 was just the harbinger of what was possible,” says DeVorkin.

And so the US military – in conjunction with General Electric and the US Navy-backed Applied Physics Lab and Naval Research Lab – started packing V-2s with science instruments and cameras and throwing rockets. in the upper atmosphere over New Mexico.

It didn’t always go well.

“One of the big challenges, at this point, was that the United States had no way of recovering a payload,” Neufeld said.

Developing parachutes to work with German-made rockets would take time and money the engineers didn’t have, so “what they did on the early V-2s is basically put things in boxes. armored vehicles and hope that it would survive the crash into the ground at several 100 miles an hour, ”says Neufeld.

There was no rocket telemetry at the start, and certainly no GPS beacon, so even if a camera or instrument survived the fall, it could take a while to find the crater.

“You would have radar tracking, which gives you a rough location of where the impact was, but that’s it,” says Neufeld. “They should send people in jeeps into the desert and say, ‘Look for a hole around there. “”

The first photo of Earth from space

The 12th and 13th V-2 rocket launches from White Sands, however, were relative successes.

The 12th launch, on October 10, 1946, became the first rocket-based space experiment. A solar spectrograph recorded the absorption pattern of ultraviolet light in the upper atmosphere.

The 13th launch, October 24, transported the rigged film camera – using parts of a B-29 bomber’s fire control system – to take time-lapse photos of the mid-section of the rocket as it flew to an altitude of 65 miles.

The camera worked wonderfully and even managed to survive the fall, Dvorkin notes in his book on the project. “Hours after the crash,” he wrote, “the camera was found at the impact site” in near perfect condition “although a lens was lost.”

A captured German V-2 rocket is launched from the White Sands Missle Range site in New Mexico. Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images

Unlike subsequent Cold War aerospace development programs, such as Chuck Yeager’s flight in 1947 to break the sound barrier, the V-2’s launches were not kept secret, but widely publicized.

In November, footage of the October 24 flight taken at various altitudes was released to the press. The Los Angeles Examiner, writes DeVorkin, launched them with the headline: “You’re on a V-2 rocket 65 miles further!”

Film news service Trans-Lux called the footage “the most sensational news footage of all time.”

The images of the V-2 weren’t the first high-altitude photographs the public had seen showing the curvature of the Earth – these came from the crew of the high-altitude balloon Explorer II, a mission funded by the National Geographic Society which reached an altitude of over 13 miles in 1935.

But the V-2 images were taken at five times that height and clearly showed the darkness of space. They were caught in space out from an altitude of 65 miles and struck a chord.

“Just like the Hubble images are the highlights that really turn people on,” DeVorkin says, “here you could see Earth and you could see large parts of Earth.”

The legacy of the V-2 rocket n ° 13

But it wasn’t just the popular imagination that was ignited by the V-2 footage. The military saw the potential for high-altitude optical reconnaissance.

One of the engineers at the Naval Research Laboratory working on the V-2s, Thor A. Bergstralh, even began to think about the usefulness of having a rocket with a camera that didn’t fall, says DeVorkin – a satellite.

“Having said that, ‘we now have technology that can actually send something up there. “”

The V-2 further strengthened the voices of scientists and engineers who discussed space travel in the 1920s and 1930s when it was assumed to be a long-term endeavor.

“The V-2 legitimizes a lot of that,” says Neufeld. “Having said that, ‘we now have technology that can actually send something up there. “”

Meanwhile, the work of Bergstralh and other scientists and engineers, including James Van Allen of the eponymous gradation belts, not only made space scientific discoveries, but helped develop the type of rocket guidance systems and missiles that would be needed for both nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. (ICBM) of the Cold War and the launchers of the space race.

“It’s always the two sides of the rocket and it’s always the two sides of the rocket,” says Neufeld. “I mean, right now we hear daily news about ballistic missile programs and hypersonic missile programs from China or North Korea.”

Today as then, the two sides of the rocket are accelerating each other.


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