The camera that snapped the photo was launched on a German V-2 rocket seized from the Nazis after the end of World War II.
More than a decade before the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, scientists at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico launched a camera on top of a Nazi V-2 ballistic missile and managed to snap the first photo of Earth from space. On October 24, 1946, the rocket flew to an altitude of about 65 miles—just above the Karman line, the generally recognized border of outer space—as a 35-millimeter motion picture camera snapped a frame every second and a half. Minutes later, the whole thing came crashing back down and slammed into the ground at more than 340 mph.
When the scientists found the film intact among the wreckage of the camera, thanks to a specialized steel cassette, “they were ecstatic, they were jumping up and down like kids,” as Fred Rulli, an enlisted 19-year-old serviceman at the time who drove out to retrieve the film, told Air & Space in a 2006 article. When they projected the grainy, black-and-white pictures of the Earth onto a screen back at the launch site, “the scientists just went nuts.”
It’s not hard to see why. Before the White Sands photos, the highest photo ever taken was from the Explorer II balloon in 1935, 13.7 miles up, just high enough to make out the curvature of the Earth. The V-2 photo, on the other hand, clearly shows the planet against the darkness of space. This perspective prompted the engineer who built the camera, Clyde Holliday, to write in a 1950 National Geographic article that the photos are “how our Earth would look to visitors from another planet coming in on a space ship.”
The V-2 research team continued to study the upper atmosphere with temperature and pressure gauges and other scientific instruments strapped to the top of some 300 railroad cars’ worth of V-2 rockets at their disposal. The rockets came with multiple German scientists and engineers who were secretly brought to the United States during Operation Paperclip, including the infamous aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun, credited with inventing the V-2 as well as designing the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo program.