It's Earth Day: A look back at how we photographed the planet long before Google Earth and the Apollo…

Collected images.
April 22 2011 7:00 AM

It's a Small World After All

A slide show of aerial photography, from pigeon-mounted cameras to Apollo 17 and beyond.

Click here to view a slide show on the history of aerial photography.

At first, the flight surgeons at NASA didn't want to give John Glenn a camera. They worried that snapping photos might distract the astronaut. Glenn disagreed.

"I went in to [Manned Spacecraft Center Director]  Bob Gilruth  and said, 'For heaven's sake, I'm not going to get so carried away with the camera that I'm not going to monitor the things I'm supposed to be monitoring,' and he agreed," Glenn recalled in a 1998 issue of Popular Science.

A few weeks before liftoff, Glenn purchased a Minolta Hi-Matic camera for $45 at a drug store in Cocoa Beach, Fla. On Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn became the first American man to orbit the Earth—and the first person to record what he saw from space in photographs. *

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It was a triumph more than 100 years in the making. In 1858, Frenchman Gaspard Felix Tournachon (known by the pseudonym "Nadar") embarked on a similar mission. He, too, longed to capture the Earth from above. Nadar shot the first ever aerial photograph of a small French town from a tethered hot air balloon. That image has since been lost, but his urge to see people as dots and land as a patchwork quilt has endured.

Now, with the advent of satellite technology, we've become largely accustomed to the wonder of seeing the Earth from so distant a perch. But until fairly recently, encompassing images of the planet were a novelty that gave its residents an entirely new perspective on the planet. Here, in honor of Earth Day, is a slide-show history of aerial photography, as shot from a variety of vehicles. And pigeons.

Correction, April 22, 2011: This article incorrectly identified John Glenn as the first man to orbit the Earth. He was the first American man to orbit the Earth. (Return to corrected sentence.)

Elizabeth Weingarten is the associate editor at New America and the associate director of its Global Gender Parity Initiative.