Climate Histories: Seeing Earth from space for first time

We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” Bill Anders

In the mid-1960s atmospheric physicists and modellers began to produce studies of how the atmosphere would respond to elevated levels of CO2.  But still, they considered the greenhouse effect as a geophysical experiment, and the rise of CO2, as a changing parameter in the general problem of atmospheric thermal equilibrium.[1] Meanwhile, diverse and competitive hypotheses had an influence on scientists’ view and generated disputes between those who adopted warming and those who backed cooling theories, although the number of scientists who considered the possibility of cooling was very limited. Scientific controversies and disputes between experts provoked major difficulties for decision-making and policy implementation. The situation was illustrated very well to a 1968  Time magazine essay, titled ‘The Age of Effluence’.

“What ever happened to America the Beautiful? While quite a bit of it is still visible, the recurring question reflects rising and spreading frustration over the nation’s increasingly dirty air, filthy streets and malodorous rivers—the relentless degradations of a once virgin continent ……. It seems undeniable that some disaster may be lurking in all this, but laymen hardly know which scientist to believe”.[2]

Before the space age, the environment had always been, by definition, the thing one was in. The environment was immediate. The environmental concerns were limited in maintaining the quality of people’s surroundings. Threats from climate change and dealing with them required a scientific outlook that went beyond anyone’s immediate surroundings, one that would encompass the entire globe.[1]  The development of space technology allowed humans to take photographs of our home planet as seen from space for the first time.  The first, black and white photographs, of Earth from an altitude greater than 100 miles in space, were taken on 7 March, 1947. The best photographs in these early years were those taken from the cameras of U-2. U-2 was a remarkable reconnaissance aircraft, built and flown in utter secrecy. They were sent up to sample the bomb’s radioactive fallout before it fell, thus providing scientists with insights into both the weapons being tested and the circulation of the stratosphere. U-2 could take its pilots higher than any other aircraft, still, the photographs provided limited information to scientists. Soon, this will change.

Image Credit: Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

Following Yuri Gagarin’ s successful orbit mission aboard the spacecraft Vostok 1 on 12 April 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced to the American nation, on 25 May 1961 a goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade.  Apollo project was the largest non- military technological endeavour ever undertaken by the United States and its goals, besides achieving pre-eminence in space for the United States, were

  • Establishing the technology to meet other national interests in space.
  • Carrying out a program of scientific exploration of the Moon.
  • Developing man’s capability to work in the lunar environment.[4]
Apollo emblem. Credits: NASA
Apollo emblem.
Credits: NASA

On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit. It was the first Apollo mission to go on the far side of the Moon. The three-astronaut crew, Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders, the first men to travel beyond low Earth orbit, held a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft.

These pictures and especially Earthrise, one of the most famous and most influential photographs ever taken, transformed people attitude to our home planet. They realised how small and fragile their home planet is and offered a completely different perspective to the way they see the earth and its environment.  These first pictures of Earth from space inspired the environmental movement.

Jim Lovell at the Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39. 6 April 1970. NASA

You can hide the Earth behind your thumb’ reported Jim Lovell. ‘Everything that you’ve ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the Earth itself – all behind your thumb.’

These photographs also changed scientists’ thinking about earth and earth science and how they could better conduct research on climate and global change. For first time the scientists realised that the dreams of the early visionary scientists to examine the weather from above could be, not only a reality but also crucial to climate change research.  But, they would have to wait fifteen more years until the technology made it possible for them to demonstrate the effectiveness of observing the earth from space.


Sources and further reading

[1] David M.Hart and David G.Victor, “Scientific Elites and the Making of the U.S. Policy for Climate Change Research, 1957-74”, Social Studies of Science, 23:4 (November 1993) 643-80.

[2] Age of Effluence, Time, 10 May 1968, p.53

[3] Oliver Morton, “The Planet Remade” Granta (2015)

[4] NASA History (

[5] Oliver Morton, “The Planet Remade” Granta (2015)

Image: Earthrise Credit: NASA