06 October 2008

Eagle-eye Cooper

From a book chapter on mapping the Earth from space:
'...the most fruitful of the Mercury missions was the last, the 22-orbit flight of Gordon Cooper in May 1963.  Cooper was equipped with a hand-held 70mm Hasselblad [camera] and with incredibly acute vision, 20/12 instead of the normal 20/20.  Because of the weather conditions below and the configuration of his orbit, nearly all of the best colour pictures Cooper took were of Tibet.  He passed over that country several times, travelling at an altitude of more than 160 kilometres and a speed of 28,000 kilometres an hour.
Cooper's report after the mission astonished everyone.  "I could detect individual houses and streets," the astronaut said, "in the low-humidity and cloudless areas such as the Himalaya ... area, the Tibetan plain, and the southwestern desert area of the US.  I saw several individual houses [probably large lamaseries] with smoke coming from the chimneys in the high country around the Himalayas ... I saw what I took to be a vehicle along a road in the Himalaya area and in the west Texas-Arizona area.  I could first see the dust blowing off the road, then could see the road clearly, and when the light was right, an object that was probably a vehicle"
Could this really be possible?  Or was Cooper seeing things?  Since the physiological effects of space flight were at that time largely unknown, a number of scientists suspected that Cooper, under the influence of prolonged weightlessness, had suffered hallucinations.  But subsequent investigation revealed that a large white-topped truck had indeed driven along that rather deserted southwestern highway at the exact time and place Cooper had reported.  
- John Noble Wilford, 'The Mapmakers', 2002  

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