Like travelers everywhere, when the astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia's most recent mission weren't busy, they amused themselves by taking a few snapshots. While conducting a rigorous schedule of experiments aimed at understanding the human nervous system, the crew photographed each other running on treadmills, preparing meals and just relaxing.
The astronauts also found some time to admire the spectacular view out of the windows of their accommodations, which slid around the Earth once every hour and a half. Their particular mission, STS-90, gave them a special vantage. The orbit of the shuttle and its inclination created ideal conditions for photographing the Earth. And more important, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) provided them with a camera that wasn't exactly Dad's Kodak.
This instrument, which NASA refers to only as "an electronic still camera (ESC)," captured spectacular images of Earth's geographic features and cities from a distance of about 140 miles away. Features such as airports, roads and even some large buildings are clearly visible. But NASA, which usually provides detailed information about its instruments, was not so forthcoming in this case. Searches of its web sites found no references to ESC--or still cameras, for that matter.
The space agency graciously posted a series of the images to the shuttle mission web site. Oddly, though, the images are mostly of North America. There are a few of Europe, including a really nice shot of Gibraltar. Another great picture shows the shuttle launch complex at Cape Canaveral. Others revealed places like Atlanta, Yellowstone and Logan, Utah. We guess that the astronauts were sleeping or conducting critical research when they passed over Iran or China.
Despite a sneaking feeling that we weren't getting the whole story--or the real goods--our pride swelled when we came across the image of New York. After all, its not every day that you get a good picture of your home town snapped from a shuttle. And it really is pretty spectacular.
We downloaded the entire 4-megabyte image to take a closer look and decided to share some of the details with our web readers. The result is a short guided tour of the Big Apple. We'd be the first to admit that you could do better with a disposable camera from an airplane at 5,000 feet. And we realize it probably doesn't hold a candle to the stuff Gary Powers turned out way back in the 1960s. But, hey, its our town.