Can you tell the earth from the moon?

"Out of the Silent Planet" by C.S. Lewis, audiobook.
“Out of the Silent Planet” by C.S. Lewis, audiobook.

I had a bit of a mind boggling realization last night. Jeff and I enjoy listening to audio books together in the car, and we are currently listening to Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis. It’s the first in a science fiction trilogy that I was unfamiliar with until I came across it while browsing a t the library. (I know that is a quaint and technologically inferior practice, but I love it nonetheless.)

In the course of the first three tracks (just to clarify that this is not a spoiler) the abducted protagonist finds himself on a space ship observing what he believes is a remarkably large and bright moon. Turns out it isn’t the moon its the earth.

Think about that for a moment. Weird, right? Who mistakes the earth for a the moon?

Then it struck me. C.S. Lewis had no idea what the earth looked like from outer-space! At least he didn’t in 1936 when he wrote this story. It is so common place to me to know what the earth looks like from an alien’s eye view, that this realization has been stuck with me.

Even in their commonplace position in the general knowledge, pictures of the earth from space are remarkable and gorgeous. I wondered what it was like to see the first pictures?

Well, actually not that amazing to be honest.

The first images of earth from outside were captured roughly a decade after Lewis’ story by a video camera attached to a rocket. The the grainy black and white video barely captures the earth and gives off none of its majestic colorful glory.

1946 image of the earth... this is not a video.
1946 image of the earth… this is not a video.

The first still photo captured in 1959 is little better. If you didn’t tell me it was earth, I wouldn’t have guessed.

First still photo of the earth from outer-space taken in 1959
First still photo of the earth from outer-space taken in 1959

In 1972 NASA captured the first full-view photo of the earth in a stunning and well known photo called the Blue Marble.

The Blue Marble- First full view photo of earth taken in 1972
The Blue Marble- First full view photo of earth taken in 1972

I don’t know exactly why this realization captured my attention so much; I’m not a great outer-space enthusiast, but I find it fascinating to think of something that is so common to me that I take it for granted, being a matter of speculation and supposition to people who are still living today. Maybe because I’m one of the first generations to grow up always knowing what the earth looks like in full color.

I don’t feel this same awe about other now commonplace yet really remarkable technology such as computers or cell phones. Maybe because those things are still novel to me. I remember getting our first computer that ran DOS (taking it old school). I remember getting my first cell phone when cell phones became actually portable, and blue-tooth was the luxury cutting edge of the market.

I guess this same sort of weird feeling will happen to my children when they watch Wicker Park and think “Why doesn’t Josh Hartnett just get Diane Kruger’s cell number and be done with the roommate confusion or whatever?” And then they will realize “No way! They really didn’t have cell phones then.” (Note: I actually kind of love “Wicker Park” for this very reason, because in 2004 it was pretty much the last of the missed communication movies to be believable without at least acknowledging the now ubiquitous status of cell phones. And Josh Hartnett.)

Maybe this particular fascination lingers with me because Out of the Silent Planet is a work of science fiction, and I have come to expect a level of technological supposition–on the verge of prescience–from science fiction. I admire Lewis immensely as a writer and a thinker, and that admiration is undiminished, yet it just blew my mind to find that the man didn’t even know the difference between the earth and the moon.

For more on early images of the earth check out this Air & Space Museum story for the full 1946 video, as well as this NASA page about the 1959 photo.  The Blue Marble is in larger and downloadable glory at National Geographic’s site as well.

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