The Blue Marble: One of Earth’s Most Iconic Images, 50 Years Later

The Blue Marble: One of Earth’s Most Iconic Images, 50 Years Later

in A clickwe examine the power of a single photograph, chronicling stories of how both contemporary and historical images were made.

On Christmas Eve 1972, humanity received a gift: a portrait of the Earth as a bright globe.

Clouds swirl over the vast African continent and the southern polar ice cap, all set against the deep blue of the world’s oceans.

The iconic photo, known as the “Blue Marble,” was taken by NASA astronauts Eugene “Gene” Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmidt on Dec. 7 using a Hasselblad camera and a Zeiss lens, about 45,000 kilometers (28,000 miles) from home when the Apollo 17 crew headed for the moon.

The detailed image of our planet framed against the black void of space captured the awe of spaceflight in one shot. (When asked which person should take credit for snapping the shutter, the astronauts demurred.)

It’s called the “overview effect,” the unique perspective astronauts have of Earth as a planet against the vast backdrop of the universe. Many astronauts have said they feel more protective of our home and its thin atmosphere, which looks so fragile from space, after gaining this perspective.

Apollo 17 lifted off in the early morning hours of December 7th. credit: NASA

The Apollo 17 crew didn’t set out to capture such an iconic image, said Steven Garber, a historian in NASA’s History Division. Nor was it a key component of the mission plan.

But since the Gemini program in the 1960s, NASA has ensured that all astronauts are trained in photography to capture images that could convey to the world the experience — and majesty — of space flight, said Teazel Muir-Harmony, Apollo curator at the National Air and Space Museum.

“It was part of that greater awareness of the value of imaging, not only from a science perspective, but from a cultural and political perspective and all the other aspects that motivated the decision to take cameras into space in the first place,” she said.

Environmental icon

The moment flashed back to another Christmas Eve, four years earlier, when Apollo 8 astronauts – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders – became the first people to walk around the moon and witnessed the “Earth Sunrise” as our planet rose over the ravaged, scarred lunar surface.

“We came all this way to explore the moon, and most importantly, we discovered Earth,” Anders said.

The first photographs of Earth taken by humans during the Apollo missions became some of the most reproduced of all time, and 50 years later their power and influence remain.

The famous one "Sunrise on Earth" The photo was taken during the Apollo 8 mission.

The famous “Earthrise” photo was taken during the Apollo 8 mission. credit: NASA

Still, “The Blue Marble” didn’t resonate right away.

The image was not published on the front pages of newspapers around the world, in part because it faced strong competition from other news outlets.

At that time, American involvement in war in vietnam was drawing to a close and US President Richard Nixon began an intensive bombing campaign in an attempt to end the conflict. Former President Harry Truman was ill and died on December 26. Meanwhile, sensational headlines about cannibalism were splashed across the world’s newspapers following the discovery in mid-December of survivors of a plane crash in the Andes months earlier.

But while the Blue Marble didn’t create a revolution overnight, it did play an important role in the growing environmental movement.

The first one Earth Day was commemorated on April 22, 1970. Over time, the Apollo 17 photo became the event’s banner image and part of the iconography of the green movement, Muir-Harmony said. Before The Blue Marble, campaign imagery often focused on pollution, gas masks and endangered species.

Self portrait of humanity

Apollo 17 marked the end of the Apollo lunar exploration program, which was responsible for renewing the scientific focus on space exploration while inspiring the public. During pre-flight training, the mission’s astronauts said the impending end of the program felt like a “black cloud” hanging over them.

“Everyone working on the program was aware that this was the last mission, and that really affected the experience,” Muir-Harmony said.

Astronaut Harrison Schmidt stands next to the American flag during a moonwalk during Apollo 17, with Earth in the background.

Astronaut Harrison Schmidt stands next to the American flag during a moonwalk during Apollo 17, with Earth in the background. credit: NASA

Over time, their image of the “Blue Marble” became associated with philosophy, the value of research, and the roles that science and technology play in our society.

“It has incredible resonance,” Muir-Harmony said. “The ubiquity of that image is now part of his story.”

Her favorite story about the photo comes from an interview Cernan gave after returning to Earth. He emphasized that the image should be understood from a philosophical point of view – because it is a self-portrait of humanity.

“It gives you a very different sense of the world we live in, that geographic and political boundaries are really meaningless when you get into space,” Garber said. “And I think that’s part of what’s so special about the Blue Marble picture.”

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