On the evening of April 1, 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower saw the first image sent back from space by the Television InfraRed Observation Satellite (TIROS) 1 weather satellite—shaped, as some quipped, like “an enormous hatbox.” As he considered the grainy black and white image of cloud cover over the eastern United States and Canada, he remarked “the Earth doesn’t look so big when you see that curvature.
Earth Day will be celebrated on April 22. An annual event begun in 1970, it is, in the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “devoted to the preservation of the harmony in nature.” Before and since that first occasion, spaceflight and the environmental movement have been deeply entwined, shaping how we think about Earth as home as well as our responsibilities to sustain that home.
At the National Air and Space Museum in recent years, we have pursued collaborations with other Smithsonian museums to expand the topics of our exhibitions and programs. On August 15 we opened a new art exhibition titled Views of Africa. A collaboration with the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, it includes satellite views of African locations and a new work of contemporary art. It is being displayed in conjunction with the Earth Matters exhibition at the National Museum of African Art, which explores human connections to the land and how that is they are reflected in art.
Yes, the sky is falling. The asteroid impact that took place in Chelyabinsk, Russia, on February 15, 2013, has jump-started an international conversation about planetary protection and whether or not there is a really big asteroid/meteor/comet out there with our name on it. There is, we just haven’t found it yet. Miniscule objects enter the atmosphere all the time; occasionally larger objects come down—the Tunguska (1908) and Chelyabinsk (2013) events are prime examples of this—and once in a very great while a mass extinction impact takes place as in the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event of 66-65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs.
Most people know that satellites in orbit do useful things such as collect images of the Earth's surface. At the National Air and Space Museum I use satellite images in my job to understand changes in the Earth's land surface.
Who has not seen the bright blue and white image of the Earth, swaddled in clouds and looking inviting, in numerous places and in various settings? Taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts on December 7, 1972, this photograph is one of the most widely distributed images in existence.
To get to Antarctica, I first flew on commercial flights from Washington, D.C. to Christchurch, New Zealand. While in Christchurch, I picked up special gear for the cold and harsh conditions in Antarctica from the US Antarctic Program Clothing Distribution Center. Several days later, I boarded a C-17 plane bound for McMurdo Station, Antarctica. In November, the temperatures are still cold enough that the sea ice surrounding McMurdo is used as a runway for aircraft. As I first stepped off the plane in Antarctica onto that expansive sheet of snow-covered ice, I was greeted by a blast of icy air, biting wind, and an amazing view of Mt. Erebus, the southernmost historically active volcano. It was so beautiful, it almost took my breath away!