You may be wondering about the title of this post. I don't blame you.
Unexpected juxtapositions are like enticing catnip for human brains. They're similar to the awful, and awfully effective, headlines that scream "You Won't Believe What Happened Next!".
But sometimes such teases do actually lead to something interesting.
Last week I had to make an unfortunate emergency trip to a dental surgeon in New York. During the course of that trip I learned two things. First, human teeth (or at least my human teeth) offer a terrific example of why there is no intelligent design in the universe, none whatsoever. Second, the drugs they knock you out with can cause the brain to make all sorts of wonderfully unexpected connections.
Afterwards, when I'd been gently guided to a recovery couch and a soothing view of trees and blue sky in Central Park, a question started nagging at me. It had absolutely nothing to do with teeth, but it might not have popped into my mind where it not for teeth and teeth related medications. I realized that I didn't know when the very first images of the Earth were taken from the vantage point of space. Space, teeth, Central Park, I have no idea why. Luckily I had my smartphone in my pocket.
As far as I can ascertain, the very first photos taken of the Earth from space were on the 24th of October 1946 (over a decade before Sputnik's historic orbit). And here is the most commonly referenced one:
The source was a 35mm film camera snapping a picture roughly every 1.5 seconds and mounted on a V-2 rocket (yep, the one the Nazi's developed) that was the 13th such rocket to be launched from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The altitude? Somewhere over 62.5 miles - the so-called Karman line where the atmosphere thins to the point that you'd have to move at more than the orbital velocity to get enough aerodynamic lift to stay up.
The rocket itself shot up in a simple ballistic trajectory, then fell back and crashed on the planet. Luckily the film was secure in a steel container. Apart from individual images like the one above it was also possible to string the frames together to form a timelapse movie of these early ventures into the universe. Here's a video showing the camera, launch and (quite remarkably) the tumbling view from space in the mid 1940s (Universal Studios).
Over subsequent years, into 1950, the V-2's kept getting launched from White Sands and photographs kept getting taken. These included some from an altitude of just over 100 miles.
These really were the first glimpses of our world from the outside, revealing the haze of the atmosphere and the extraordinary vista of clouds and landscapes seen from space.
Discovering this early history of space exploration may not have been what I expected at the dental surgery, but it certainly helped ease the pain.