Fifty years ago humans took the first full photo of Earth from space – climate crisis means it’s time for another


“Everyone in the world has to do it. Everyone in the world needs to see this. These were the first words of William Shatner, 90, as he exited, shaking with emotion, from a brief trip to space – where the former Star Trek actor had spent barely four minutes – aboard a Blue rocket Origin October 13, 2021.

“This tune that keeps us alive,” he said:

It’s thinner than your skin… We think, “Oh, it’s the blue sky”, and then suddenly you pull it all up, like you’re pulling a sheet off of you when you’re sleeping, and looking in. the darkness … it’s so thin, and you’re there in an instant!

As space travelers like Shatner have witnessed, our planet’s atmosphere seems as thin as the apple skin relative to Earth. Although from our point of view it may seem limitless, we can change its composition with emissions as easily as we can pollute vast lakes and oceans.

Yet many reports covering Shatner’s trip failed to mention his comments on the fragility of Earth’s atmosphere: comments that could easily have been directed to delegates arriving at the unfolding UN climate change conference COP26. in Glasgow.

Shatner’s journey was made possible by Jeff Bezos’ space exploration company, Blue Origin, founded in 2000, and understandably came under criticism. Bezos, the billionaire founder of e-commerce giant Amazon, arguably achieved his astronomical success by digging into the cultural and commercial infrastructure of local areas around the world: and was convicted of spending Billions expand into the space tourism industry rather than improving the environment on Earth.

The manned space program of the 1960s and 1970s, competitively managed by the United States and Russia, was also critical like a waste of money. But it gave a huge and unexpected bonus: the first sight of Earth from space, in all its majestic isolation.

At Christmas 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first to see and photograph the entire planet as they flew around the moon. From a quarter of a million kilometers away, Earth’s unique beauty and vulnerability have become apparent like never before.

This photo of the Earth, seen rising above the lunar horizon, was taken by the Apollo 8 crew on Christmas Eve 1968.
William Anders / NASA, CC BY-SA

During the trip, astronaut Bill Anders took an unscheduled photo of the Earth partly in shadow, with the moon in the foreground. The dead colors of the moon contrasted directly with the fertile, brightly colored Earth.

The photo, known colloquially as “Earthrise,” was later describe by photographer Galen Rowell as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”. Years later, Anders reflected on his experience: “We’ve come all this way to the Moon, and yet the most important thing we see is our own home planet. ”

An inspiration

No sooner did the Earth become fully visible than it sparked the rapid growth of the environmental movement, marked by the formation of the environmental charity Les Amis de la Terre in 1969 and the first UN Earth Summit in Stockholm in 1972. Commentator John Caffrey wrote in 1970 that “the greatest lasting benefit of the Apollo missions might be this sudden surge of inspiration to try and save this fragile environment – if we still can.”

In December 1972, the last Apollo mission (Apollo 17) captured perhaps an even more famous image of the Earth, lit by the Sun from a distance of 28,000 miles: known as “Blue marble” Photo.

Unlike Earthrise’s depiction of a half-shaded planet taken from the north, this photo showed the entire Earth from the south, including the first view of Antarctica. This view of an aquatic globe, centered on Madagascar rather than a Western country, has emerged as a photographic manifesto for global equality. With the human eye behind the lens, humanity found itself facing Mother Earth in an image that has become one of the the most reproduced photos of all time.

A flag with the entire Earth on a blue background
The image of the entire Earth seen from space has become a symbol of the environmental movement.
Street Protest TV / Wikimedia, CC BY

In fact, traveling through space to see this transformative spectacle in person is, of course, impossible for the vast majority of the population. Since 1972, no human has left Earth’s orbit or seen the entire Earth, and very few ever will.

As a result, groups such as the Institute presentation and the Planetary Identity Center have since proposed imaginative schemes for diffusing the environmental consciousness created by viewing Earth from a distance to the general population, including the use of virtual reality. As a historian and environmentalist, I have a more modest proposition.

A new blue marble

Next year, 50 years will have passed since the Blue Marble photo: I think it’s time to take another one. In December 2022, the Earth will be in a position relative to the sun similar to that of December 1972. This will give a probe the opportunity to capture a photo of the entire Earth at the same distance and at the same angle as before, revisiting perhaps the greenest achievement of the space age.

Even if awesome pictures have since been captured from the entire planet by satellites, none offer the same perspective as the original image and most are composites assembled from multiple frames to show an idealized globe in perfect weather.

While this image is still beautiful, the planet it captures will not be the same. Deserts like the Sahara will have widened. Cloud systems will have changed. The Antarctic ice will have receded and less green will be visible. Seen side by side, these two blue marbles, half a century apart, would bring home the consequences of climate change without a word, instantly and globally.

So, space billionaires: if you really care about protecting our planet, let’s have the ultimate Earthshot.


About Coy Lewallen

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