Monday, March 11, 2013

From above!

 Image above: On October 24, 1946, not long after the end of World War II and years before the Sputnik satellite opened the space age, a group of soldiers and scientists in the New Mexico desert saw something new and wonderful—the first pictures of Earth as seen from space.

Never in all their history have men been able truly to conceive of the world as one: a single sphere, a globe, having the qualities of a globe, a round earth in which all the directions eventually meet, in which there is no center because every point, or none, is center — an equal earth which all men occupy as equals. The airman's earth, if free men make it, will be truly round: a globe in practice, not in theory.

Archibald MacLeish, May 1942.

The technology of the 20th Century set in motion the age of seeing the Earth from above in all its spatial glory, an age which has changed the population’s perception of the Earth they live on.  I have frequently been fascinated by the change in spatial literacy and perceptions created by the 20th Century capacity to view the Earth from above. Before the age of flight and the space age, the only way we perceived the Earth from above was through the projection of maps, otherwise we had a ground level view of our world. If we were lucky we could ascend to the top of a tall building but our view was limited to the horizon (the horizontal, as opposed to the vertical view) and the true dimensions of the Earth were not evident. Traditionally geographers created maps to provide a birds-eye view of the Earth and increasingly in the 20th Century aerial imagery from aircraft was used. When satellite imagery began to be available in the 1950’s, a new world of ‘from above’ views of the Earth commenced. Even then, it was primarily geographers, governments and industry who used these images. With the advent of the Internet and programs such as Google Earth and Google Maps, we now have readily available a plethora of views of our planet from above. Some call this the democratisation of geography, the community all being geographers! It is no longer just the geographer using remote sensed images but the community has them readily available and use them repeatedly to find out what they require. News broadcast, documentaries, films, websites, sporting events and many other areas of community activity use ‘from above’ images so that they now have become just part of our lifestyle. There is now an expectation by the community that they should be able to be informed by viewing ‘from above’ images.
My question is, what has this changed view of our Earth done to our perception of the place we live? In fact, some argue that this change of spatial perception has been a great contributor to the concepts of globalisation, environmentalism and the perception of a world of diminishing size. If nothing so grand, it surely has changed our spatial perception? The community now has the eye on the world from above and nothing cannot be seen across space. In the past it was primarily geographers who could comprehend and analyse remote sensed images from planes and satellites, now it seems that it is just a life skill for all. As a geographer I see this as a great thing and makes one consider the role geography in schools needs to play to support the communities use of these very geographical tools.

The Blue Marble is a famous photograph of the Earth, taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft, at a distance of about 45,000 kilometres
Counterculture activists had been among the first to cherish these images as icons of a new global consciousness. The Apollo 17 image, however, released during a surge in environmental activism during the 1970s, was acclaimed by the wide public as a depiction of Earth's frailty, vulnerability, and isolation amid the vast expanse of space. NASA archivist Mike Gentry has speculated that The Blue Marble is the most widely distributed image in human history.

The following quotes from commentators and those involved in the space age are enlightening to see what they thought the initial images they saw from above our earth did to their perception of life on Earth.

"Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose."
Sir Fred Hoyle, 1948. 

"It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small."
 Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 astronaut

"Oddly enough the overriding sensation I got looking at the earth was, my god that little thing is so fragile out there."
— Mike Collins, Apollo 11 astronaut

"As I looked down, I saw a large river meandering slowly along for miles, passing from one country to another without stopping. I also saw huge forests, extending along several borders. And I watched the extent of one ocean touch the shores of separate continents. Two words leaped to mind as I looked down on all this: commonality and interdependence. We are one world".
John-David Bartoe  Spacelab astronaut

"We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the earth".
William Anders Apollo 8 astronaut

 For the geography classroom

One of the great boons for geography in schools is that we have readily available a plethora of amazing images from above the earth to use in our teaching. The following few sites are just some that help students see the Earth from above in the most exciting way.  Maps still have a critical place as the purveyors of information but the images we can use certainly add colour, dimension and depth to our perception of the earth and student spatial perception.


A time-lapse taken from the front of the International Space Station as it orbits our planet at night.
Britain from Above presents the unique Aerofilms collection of aerial photographs from 1919-1953.
A wonderful resource on Australia from above from the ABC.

* Amazing video views from the International Space Station at night

No comments: