The Earth From a Great Height

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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