THE BLUE MARBLE
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.”