Last month, an astronaut took a very special photo while in Earth orbit on the International Space Station (ISS): It was the one millionth picture taken from the science outpost since it came online in 1998. Nobody is sure who exactly took the picture, and maybe it’s best that way — astronauts tend to be an extremely collegial and humble bunch. It was astronaut Don Pettit who discovered that he or one of his colleagues took the historic shot. Not surprisingly, it’s another stunning view of the Earth.
Two Russian supply ships can be seen in the foreground while the eerie green glow of an aurora can be seen streaking across the planet below. The photo was taken as part of a time-lapse sequence, where the camera is mounted in a window and programmed to take a picture at certain intervals, which are then later edited together to produce short movies.
We have yet to see the website that will host all one million photos, but I’m sure it will eventually pop up, and then you’ll be the first to know!
Space photography has a very long history in NASA and other space agencies. Some of the world’s most memorable moments were captured by cameras in space: the “Earthrise” photo from Apollo 8 where the Earth is seen rising above the Moon’s horizon, the first photos from the desolate surface of Mars, man on the Moon — and let’s not forget the non-human photographers out there! Many exploratory spacecraft carry cameras that function much like your camera at home, others are sensitive to wavelengths other than visible light, and their photos can easily be converted by computers to images we can recognize.
Then there are the space telescopes — Hubble, Spitzer, Kepler and many others, all of which have captivated our imagination for generations.
How many pictures do you think you’ve taken in your lifetime? How many of them do you truly value because they captured a precious moment and not just the inside of your back pocket as you accidentally sat down on your cameraphone?
Early space photography used film cameras, and so robotic spacecraft had to carry small automated photo labs on board that developed the photos and then scanned them into a format that could be beamed back to Earth. Later on, astronauts carried rolls and rolls of exposed negatives back home, waiting with bated breath on how they all turned out.
Few people use film cameras these days, and of course space photography has long since switched to the digital age, and we can obtain almost instant gratification. Moreover, no precious cargo space is wasted on bulky film rolls — as long as your camera has power, you can snap away until the shutter release button wears out or some other mechanical failure occurs.
But that doesn’t make space photography any less precious. The vast majority of us will never take a picture of the Earth from “up there.”
Perhaps our kids will, though. One day, when space tourism becomes commonplace, our descendants will all snap their own one millionth picture from space.
Until then, you can look at the one from the ISS here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nasa2explore/7030497805/
Beate Czogalla is the professor of theater design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a solar system ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA for many years. She can be reached at email@example.com.