The ‘Blue Marble’: one of the most iconic images of the Earth, 50 years later

The ‘Blue Marble’: one of the most iconic images of the Earth, 50 years later

In snapwe look at the power of a single photo and capture stories about how both modern and historical images were created.

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

Clouds swirl over the vast African continent and the Antarctic Ice Sheet, all contrasting against the deep blue of our world’s oceans.

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

The detailed image of our planet, framed against the black emptiness of space, encapsulated the awe of spaceflight in one frame. (When asked who should take credit for clicking the shutter, the astronauts objected.)

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

Apollo 17 lifted off in the early morning hours of December 7.

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

The Apollo 17 crew had no intention of capturing such an iconic image, said Stephen Garber, a historian in NASA’s history department. Nor was it an important part of the mission plan.

But since the Gemini program in the 1960s, NASA had made sure all astronauts were trained in photography to capture images that could transfer the experience — and majesty — of spaceflight to the world, said Teasel Muir-Harmony, Apollo curator at the National Air & Space Museum.

“It was part of this greater awareness of the value of images, not just in terms of science, but also in terms of culture and politics and all the other aspects that motivated the decision to take cameras into space,” she said. said.

Environment icon

The moment went back to another Christmas Eve, four years earlier, when the Apollo 8 astronauts — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders — became the first humans to orbit the moon and witness “Earthrise” when our planet above the desolate, drawn lunar surface.

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

The first photographs humans took of Earth during the Apollo missions are among the most reproduced photographs of all time, and 50 years later their power and influence are still present.

The famous "Earth rise" 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 immediately resonate.

The image failed to make the front pages of newspapers around the world, in part because it faced stiff competition from other news stories.

At the time, American involvement in the Vietnamese war was coming to a close and US President Richard Nixon had launched an intense bombing campaign in an attempt to end the conflict. Former President Harry Truman was ill and died on December 26. Sensational headlines about cannibalism, meanwhile, swept the world following the mid-December discovery of survivors of a plane crash in the Andes months earlier.

But while ‘Blue Marble’ didn’t spark an overnight revolution, it came to play an important role in the growing environmental movement.

The first Earth day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. Over time, the Apollo 17 photo became the event’s banner and part of the iconography of the green movement, Muir-Harmony said. Prior to the ‘Blue Marble’, campaign images often focused on pollution, gas masks and endangered species.

A 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 program’s imminent demise had felt like a “black cloud” over them.

“Everyone who worked on the program was very aware that this was the last mission, and that really factored into the experience,” Muir-Harmony said.

Astronaut Harrison Schmitt stands by the American flag during a moonwalk during Apollo 17, with Earth in the background.

Astronaut Harrison Schmitt stands by the American flag during a moonwalk during Apollo 17, with Earth in the background. Credit: NASA

Over time, their ‘Blue Marble’ image has become associated with philosophy, the value of research and the role science and technology play in our society.

“It has an incredible resonance,” Muir-Harmony said. “The ubiquity of this image is now part of the 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 perspective, as 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 go into space,” Garber said. “And I think that’s part of what was so special about the ‘Blue Marble’ picture.”

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