Envisioning Earth from Space Before We Went There

The following is a guest post from Trevor Owens, Special Curator for the Library of Congress Science Literacy Initiative and Digital Archivist in the Office of Strategic Initiatives. 

Few images are as powerful as the 1968 Apollo 8 Earthrise photo and the 1990 Pale Blue Dot photo from Voyager 1. Seeing the Earth from space makes us appreciate just how small our world is. What you might not know is that there are scientific and artistic illustrations that anticipated these photographs. In this post I share a few examples of how books and magazines from over one hundred years ago envisioned the view of Earth from outer space.

Aspect of an eclipse of the sun by the earth, as it would appear as seen from the moon by J. Nasmyth. From The moon: considered as a planet, a world, and a satellite by James Nasmyth and James Carpenter (1874)

An Eclipse of the Sun by the Earth, 1874

The image to the right comes from the 1874 book The moon: considered as a planet, a world, and a satellite (see 1885 edition for the digital copy) by James Nasmyth and James Carpenter. The images in this book are mostly photographs of plaster models based on observations of amateur astronomer James Nasmyth. Most of the images in this book are modeled on their direct observations, but this one represents the view of the Earth from the moon. Part of considering the moon as a world, a place like Earth, required this kind of shift in perspective. Seeing the Earth eclipse the sun from the Moon makes it feel much more like a real world.

The Earth Viewed from Mercury, p. 119. From Astronomy for Amateurs by Camille Flammarion (1904)

The Earth Viewed from Mercury, 1904

French Astronomer Camille Fammarion wrote a range of popular astronomy books in the later half of the 19th century. Fammarion was fond of including images of the Earth from other vantage points in the heavens in these books. This one, from an 1904 English translation of Astronomy for Amateurs, shows the Earth as it would appear from the surface of Mercury. The little arrow points to where the Earth would be to any of the creatures on Mercury that might look out towards us.

Near the image, Fammarion notes of the planet Mercury, “we may well imagine that Nature’s fecundity can have engendered beings there of an organization different from our own, adapted to an existence in the proximity of fire. What magnificent landscapes may there be adorned with luxuriant vegetation that develops rapidly under an ardent and generous sun.”

Fammarion’s use of images of how small Earth would look from other planets work to reinforce the point of much of his writings–that there are likely beings like us on other worlds in this and other solar systems.

The most important thing in the universe by L.M. Glackens. Cover from Puck, v. 60, November 7, 1906.

The Most Important Thing in the Universe, 1906

Outer space views of Earth aren’t limited to science and popular science works. Showing Earth from space has long been a way to show how something that might seem very significant up close is at a distance not a particularly big deal. In this cartoon from the humor magazine Puck, we find a perspective on Earth from Mars.

This cartoon shows two Martians yawning and expressing relief that Charles Evans Hughes has been elected governor of New York. We can see fireworks marking the celebration back in New York from our point of observation on Mars. The caption reads in part “We can get a little sleep now that we know how the New York election came out.” Some New Yorkers might not think they are at the center of the universe, but here their state politics are being watched with considerable anticipation from 40-300 million miles away.

The Earth, the Moon and its inhabitants as seen from planet Mars through a huge telescope, pg. 48. From Trip to Mars by Marcianus Filomeno Rossi (1920)

A Trip to Mars, 1920

In the 1920 science fiction story, A Trip to Mars, we find an image of “The Earth, the Moon and its inhabitants as seen from planet Mars through a huge telescope.”

In this peculiar novel, a crew of explorers set out to visit Mars on a solar powered space craft. When they arrive, they find the planet is apparently home to the decedents of an ancient Roman civilization. Their captain is asked to give names to canals on the planet and chooses to name them for Schiaparelli (credited with having first observed the alleged canals on Mars) and Fammarion (who we’ve already discussed as a popularizer of the idea of life on other worlds).

Earth from Space: What Do You Think?

Do you have additional examples of representations of Earth from space? What do you think they say about what these images mean to us? And, do you have any further thoughts on what the four images I’ve shared mean? Please consider posting them in a comment.

3 Comments

  1. Tom Sarko
    September 12, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    “Space artists” still play an important role in doing exactly this, i.e., “envisioning Earth from space before we went there. Some of my favorites are Chesley Bonestall (deceased), Robert McCall (also deceased), and (especially for their visions of Mars) Kim Poor and Pat Rawlings. Take a look at the following web site for many other examples !

  2. Tom Sarko
    September 12, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    “Space artists” still play an important role in doing exactly this, i.e., “envisioning Earth from space before we went/go there. Some of my favorites are Chesley Bonestall (deceased), Robert McCall (also deceased), and (especially for their visions of Mars) Kim Poor and Pat Rawlings. Take a look at the following web site for many other examples: .

  3. lentigogirl
    September 13, 2013 at 11:02 am

    I had the “Peace on Earth” poster of that Apollo 8 earthrise on my wall all through high school and college!

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