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THIS ICONIC IM­AGE FOR­EVER changed the way peo­ple viewed our home world. Com­monly known as “The Blue Mar­ble” shot, it one of the most re­pro­duced im­ages in the world (it even has its own Face­book page). It was the very first com­plete pho­to­graph of our round, liv­ing, blue and green planet; so far, the only planet in the cos­mos that we know to har­bour com­plex life forms. It is also the only im­age of the whole Earth ever taken by a hu­man be­ing.

THE PIC­TURE WAS TAKEN on De­cem­ber 7, 1972 from 45,000 kilo­me­tres away by the crew of Apollo 17 (astro­naut Eu­gene A. Cer­nan, com­man­der; astro­naut Ron­ald E. Evans, com­mand mod­ule pi­lot; and sci­en­tist-astro­naut Har­ri­son H. Sch­mitt, lu­nar mod­ule pi­lot) on the last crewed mis­sion to the Moon. It was the only mis­sion that al­lowed the as­tro­nauts to see the planet in its en­tirety: You can’t see the Earth as a com­plete globe un­less you get at least 20,000 miles away from it, and only 24 hu­mans ever went that far out into space. But, even then, in or­der to see the planet as a fully-il­lu­mi­nated globe, you need to pass through a spe­cific, nar­row point point be­tween it and the sun. Most of the peo­ple who flew lu­nar mis­sions only ever saw the Earth and the Moon in par­tial shadow.

NASA TRA­DI­TION­ALLY ASCRIBE all im­ages taken on their mis­sions to the en­tire crew, and so, to this day, no one knows which of the three as­tro­nauts ac­tu­ally hit the shut­ter. The iden­tity of the shooter re­mains highly con­tro­ver­sial and is ru­moured to be a source of ten­sion and divi­sion among the two re­main­ing mem­bers of the crew.

THE AS­TRO­NAUTS WEREN’T even sup­posed to be tak­ing pic­tures – the 23 mag­a­zines of film (12 colour and 11 black and white) for the 70mm Has­sel­blad cam­eras on board was ra­tioned, and ev­ery photo ses­sion were strictly sched­uled for sci­en­tific doc­u­men­ta­tion pur­poses only.

BUT EV­ERY SIN­GLE PER­SON who has come back from space has de­scribed the deeply mov­ing, lifechang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing our shin­ing blue­green world drift­ing through the black vast­ness of space, a bea­con of life in the void. They talk about the shift in per­spec­tive that comes with leav­ing the Earth and see­ing it in its gleam­ing, uni­fied whole, an oa­sis of life in the dark­ness, a place so in­de­scrib­ably pre­cious, their at­ti­tude to our place within it for­ever al­tered.

SO, IT IS HARDLY sur­pris­ing that, just af­ter five hours into the flight of Apollo 17 one of the crew­men looked out of the win­dow and felt com­pelled to cap­ture the view. The Blue Mar­ble shot is the sec­ond and the sharpest in the se­ries of four im­ages they took, each one minute apart.

ON RE­TURN­ING TO EARTH, the pic­ture caused a global sen­sa­tion, and was printed on the front page of nearly ev­ery news­pa­per in the world.

CER­NAN WAS QUOTED in the US news­pa­per, The At­lantic: “You have to lit­er­ally just pinch your­self and ask your­self the ques­tion, silently: Do you know where you are at this point in time and space, and in re­al­ity and in ex­is­tence, when you can look out the win­dow and you’re look­ing at the most beau­ti­ful star in the heav­ens – the most beau­ti­ful be­cause it’s the one we un­der­stand and we know, it’s home, it’s peo­ple, fam­ily, love, life – and be­sides that it is beau­ti­ful. You can see from pole to pole and across oceans and con­ti­nents and you can watch it turn and there’s no strings hold­ing it up, and it’s mov­ing in a black­ness that is al­most be­yond con­cep­tion.”

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