The Story Behind Our Planet’s Most Famous Photo

 

The crew of the Apollo 8 spacecraft (Bill Anders, 3rd left) following the lunar orbital mission, 27 December 1968.

This photograph is now half a century old. It was taken by the astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 as the Apollo 8 spacecraft rounded the dark side of the moon for a fourth time.

When Earth came up over the horizon, Anders scrabbled for his Hasselblad camera and started clicking.

In that pre-digital age, five days passed. The astronauts returned to Earth; the film was retrieved and developed.

In its new year edition, Life magazine printed the photo on a double-page spread alongside a poem by US poet laureate James Dickey: “And behold / The blue planet steeped in its dream / Of reality, its calculated vision shaking with the only love.”

This was not quite the first look at our world from space. Lunar probes had sent back crudely scanned images of a crescent Earth shrouded in cloud.

A satellite had even taken a colour photo that, in the autumn of 1968, the radical entrepreneur Stewart Brand put on the cover of his first Whole Earth Catalog.

The next edition, in spring 1969, used Anders’s photograph, by now known as Earthrise.




Brand’s catalogue was a DIY manual for the Californian counterculture, a crowdsourced compendium of life hacks about backpacking, home weaving, tantra art and goat husbandry.

Its one-world, eco ethos was a weird offshoot of the macho tech of the space age – those hunks of aluminium run on rocket fuel and cold war rivalries.

But then looking back at Earth was itself a weird offshoot of the moon missions.

It just happened that Apollo 8’s aim – to locate the best lunar landing sites – needed high-res photography, which was also good for taking pictures of planets a quarter of a million miles away.

When Bill Anders took this photograph from the Apollo spacecraft on Christmas Eve in 1968, our relationship with the world changed forever

The Earth pictured in Earthrise looks unlike traditional cartographic globes that mark out land and sea along lines of latitude and longitude.

Slightly more than half the planet is illuminated. The line dividing night and day severs Africa. Earth looks as if it is floating alone in the eternal night of space, each part awaiting its share of the life-giving light of the sun.

Apart from a small brown patch of equatorial Africa, the planet is blue and white. At first glance it seems to have the sheen of blue-veined marble.

But look closer and that spherical perfection softens a little. Earth divulges its true state as oceanic and atmospheric, warmly welcoming and achingly vulnerable.

The Apollo 8 crew (from left) Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders

The blue is light scattered by the sea and sky. The white is the gaseous veneer that coats our planet and lets us live.

You can just make out the “beautiful blue halo”, with its gentle shift from tender blue to purple black, that Yuri Gagarin noticed on his first low-orbit flight.

That halo is our fragile biosphere, and is all that stands between us and the suffocating void.

Still, Earthrise must have changed something. What’s seen can’t be unseen. Perhaps it flits across your mind when you open Google Earth and see that familiar virtual globe gently spinning.

The non-human version of Earthrise from Lunar Orbiter in 1966.

Just before you click and drag to fly yourself to some portion of the world no bigger than an allotment, you may briefly take in, with a little stomach lurch, that this slowly revolving sphere holds close to 8 billion people, living out lives as small and short and yet meaningful as the universe is infinite and eternal and yet meaningless.

On that gigantic, glistening marble, mottled with blue-white swirls, lies everyone.

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