This grainy picture was taken on October 24, 1946, almost 14 months after the end of World War II and almost 11 years before the Sputnik launch. It was taken by American military engineers and scientists, using a Nazi rocket launched from the White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico.
Yes, a Nazi rocket—the V-2.
At the time there was no NASA, and human space exploration wasn't a mainstream idea. The only people who were really thinking about spaceships at the time were the Nazis of a few years earlier and their spitzenreiter mad rocket science, a man by the name of Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun.
Von Braun dreamed about spaceships and wanted to build rockets at all cost, so he became a member of the Allgemeine SS and the Nazi Party. It was then that Hitler gave him the money, material and slave labor to built the V-2, the rocket bomb that terrorized London at the end of the WWII, morals be damned.
But by 1946, von Braun had become an American rocket scientist. And the Americans had a bunch of V-2s, having seized the ones that weren't launched or were under construction when the Allies captured their launch and factory sites at the end of the war. They were imported to the United States, along with Von Braun.
Von Braun and the Americans kept working on these and other missile designs while launching the existing V-2s into space for testing. One of the engineers, Clyde Holliday, had developed a 35mm camera that took a photo every second and a half. None of the other scientists and engineers cared much about photography. They only wanted information about cosmic rays and aerodynamic performance.
Holiday understood even then that images were going to be the most powerful application of space rockets. He was right. Not only did space photography become instrumental in our understanding of Earth, its surface and its weather systems—hello frankenstorm Sandy—but it did something even more important: make humanity realize where, and how small, we are.
In 1950, National Geographic showed these photos to the world for the first time, and Holliday wrote that this is "how our Earth would look to visitors from another planet coming in on a space ship."
I'm sure that everyone who saw them instantly had the impulse to jump in a rocket and go see it themselves first-hand. I know I still do.
Photo of the V-2 ascent
Panorama of pictures, this one taken from a V-2 in 1948