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The Earth From a Great Height

In a departure from the usual science column, a photo-essay on our world from a distance.

Charlie Martin


July 25, 2013 - 4:00 pm

Seeing the Earth from above. It has fascinated people for thousands of years. We would look at the mountains…


… and look down from them, and that was our highest vantage point.



On the 4th of June 1783, the Montgolfier Brothers publicly broke the chains of the ground for the first time, flying a hot-air balloon in their home town of Annonay to an altitude of perhaps 6,000 feet. For the first time, people saw the Earth from above, looking down freely.


Aircraft flew higher than that, but the next really major advances in altitude came, once again, with balloons. Auguste Piccard flew to about 75,000 feet in the 1930′s. Project Excelsior took people to an altitude of about 19 miles in 1960.


Rockets were taking over, with sounding rockets returning pictures of Earth in the 50′s.


The X-15 flew above 60 miles altitude; Project Mercury up to as high as 170 miles altitude, and for the first time we saw pictures of the Earth from space.


In 1968, the Apollo 8 mission orbiting the moon brought us a picture we’d never seen before — the Earth rising over the charcoal-gray Moon, from a distance of about 240,000 miles.


Our robot emissaries have continued this; the Galileo Spacecraft took a picture of home on its way to Jupiter and beyond in 1992. By now we saw the Earth from an “altitude” of almost 4 million miles…


… and really saw for the first time how dark the Moon is compared to Earth.

The Spirit rover sent back this nostalgic snapshot in 2004.


a distance of more than 160 million miles.

On July 19th of this year, the Messenger Spacecraft sent back a picture of the Earth from a “mere” 61 million miles.


And the Cassini Spacecraft returned this picture of the Earth and Moon from more than 900 million miles “altitude”.


In fewer than 200 years we’ve gone from an altitude of one mile to seeing the Earth from a distance of nearly a billion miles. To some people, I know, the Earth looks tiny, insignificant, in these pictures from Saturn. But to me it says “Look, we tiny creatures from that tiny planet — we climbed this mountain, and we’ll climb others.”

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Charlie Martin writes on science, health, culture and technology for PJ Media. Follow his 13 week diet and exercise experiment on Facebook and at PJ Lifestyle

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All Comments   (4)
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1903 the Wrights flew a few hundred feet. !969 we flew an Apollo craft to the moon, landed, walked on the moon and flew back.
We've flown a spacecraft out of our solar system recently. in 110 years this was accomplished.
Accomplished by who? By 100's of scientist's, engineers, pilots, astronauts and even more so by thousands on thousands of craftsmen and laborers. Of all nations, races religious belief and national heritage. Most here is the US but also huge numbers in many many other countries around the world.
Much of the progress started with two World Wars and a Cold War, battling for strategic advantage.
And we have some silly notion that we must 'embrace diversity' and 'learn to work together' and we have entire industries, university programs corporate officers and offices devoted to 'Diversity and Inclusion' efforts.
Give Mankind a BIG vision and a BIG goal and shut up and get out of the way Diversity Professor!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
We went a billion miles away just to get a better look at ourselves. May we always have a new mirror to find and gaze into.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The only thing missing from this article is the picture of Earth from Voyager, from 3.7 billion miles away.

The Infamous Pale Blue Dot
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Stunning, fascinating photos... and a great Nanci Griffith song. Thank you for this column.

1 year ago
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