How Artists Once Imagined the Earth Would Look from Space

Ever since the invention of the telescope, people knew what the planets of the solar system looked like. By the turn of the 20th century, we even had excellent photos of many of them. But before the first satellites—-or even the first high-altitude photos from V2 rockets and stratosphere balloons—-no one had any idea what our planet would look like when seen from space. Here's how artists imagined Earth would look from space.

Illustration by Chesley Bonestell.

No one saw our earth as an entire planet hanging in empty space until 1960, when a Russian satellite snapped a grainy image. It took ten years before the first color photo of our entire planet was taken, this time by an American spacecraft.

How Artists Once Imagined the Earth Would Look from Space

The first TV picture of earth from space.

How Artists Once Imagined the Earth Would Look from Space

First full-disk photo of earth from space.

How Artists Once Imagined the Earth Would Look from SpaceFirst color full-disk photo of earth from space.

Before this, a number of artists tried to imagine what our planet might look like from space. Most of these simply showed a school globe hanging against a starry background like the Universal Pictures logo. But a few artists made an effort to depict our world realistically.

How Artists Once Imagined the Earth Would Look from Space

Nineteenth century visualization of the earth seen from space.

Figuring out what the seas and continents would look like was a snap. There wasn’t much question about that. Everyone knew the shapes of the continents and it was pretty obvious that forested areas would be green, deserts brown and oceans blue. The question really was: what would earth’s cloud cover look like? Some speculated that the earth would appear like a hazy ball, with almost nothing of the surface visible, others that the cloud cover would be intermittent and the atmosphere mostly clear. Even the great Chesley Bonestell was unsure, usually depicting the earth’s clouds in sparse, narrow bands. He should have known better, as we will see.

How Artists Once Imagined the Earth Would Look from Space

Flammarion, 1884.

The great Camille Flammarion, the Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson of his day, was probably the first to try to come up with a realistic visualization of the earth in his “Popular Astronomy” of 1894. The result was remarkably prescient. In the 1920s, Howard Russell Butler attempted an accurate portrayal of the earth for the Natural History Museum in New York. His painting reflected the current, and popular, thinking of the day, with most of the earth’s surface visible through neat patches and bands of widely space clouds.

How Artists Once Imagined the Earth Would Look from Space

Howard Russell Butler.

The first real attempt to depict the earth from space was undertaken by Lucien Rudaux. He did the obvious thing and checked world weather records. Since this was during the late 1930s and such information was not as readily available as it is today, this wasn’t easy. But Rudaux came closer than anyone before in illustrating what the earth looked like as a planet (including a view looking down on the south pole). The result showed that the earth would be a complex-looking object, with a mix of cloud forms and systems.

How Artists Once Imagined the Earth Would Look from Space

Lucien Rudaux.

It’s a mystery, by the way, why Bonestell—-usually so meticulous in his research—-typically painted the earth’s clouds wrong. Especially when he owned a copy of the book in which Rudaux carefully explained what he had done and why. Perhaps he felt that people wouldn't recognize their planet if the continents were obscured.

How Artists Once Imagined the Earth Would Look from Space

Chesley Bonestell, 1956.

National Geographic artist William Palmstrom pursued a similar tack in 1956, when, with the help of two U.S. Weather Bureau scientists, he utilized world weather records to create a rendition of the earth for the magazine. This was probably the last time anyone needed to use their imaginations in order to create such a picture.

How Artists Once Imagined the Earth Would Look from Space

William Palmstrom, 1956.

Chesley Bonestell artwork copyright Bonestell LLC