It’s been 50 years since this iconic photo revealed Earth in all its glory: ScienceAlert

December 7 marks the 50th anniversary of the Blue Marble photo. The crew of NASA’s Apollo 17 spacecraft—the last manned mission to the Moon—took a picture of Earth and changed the way we visualized our planet forever.

Taken with a Hasselblad film camera, it was the first photograph taken of the entire round Earth and is believed to be the most reproduced image of all time. Up to this point, our self-image was disjointed and fragmented: there was no way to visualize the planet in its entirety.

The Apollo 17 crew was en route to the Moon when the photo was taken 29,000 kilometers (18,000 miles) from Earth. It quickly became a symbol of harmony and unity.

Previous Apollo missions had taken pictures of Earth in partial shadow. Earthrise shows a partial Earth rising from the surface of the Moon.

Earthrise captured the Earth in partial shadow. (NASA, CC BY-NC-SA)

In Blue Marble, the Earth appears in the center of the frame, floating in space. It is possible to clearly see the African continent as well as the southern polar ice cap of Antarctica.

Pictures like Blue Marble are quite difficult to capture. To see the Earth as a complete globe floating in space, the lighting must be carefully calculated. The sun should be directly behind you. Astronaut Scott Kelly notes that this can be difficult to plan when orbiting at high speeds.

Created within the larger cultural and political context of the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union, the photograph reveals an unexpectedly neutral view of Earth without borders.

Violation of mapping conventions

According to geographer Dennis Cosgrove, the Blue Marble broke Western conventions of mapping and cartography. By removing the grid—the grid of meridians and parallels that humans place on the globe—the image represented an Earth freed from mapping practices that had been in place for hundreds of years.

Two large and two smaller round cards covered with netting, with a background composed of a detailed painting.
We’ve been putting grids on our maps for hundreds of years, like in this world map from 1689 (Wikimedia Commons)

The photograph also gave Africa a central position in the representation of the world, where Eurocentric mapping practice tended to downplay Africa.

The image quickly became a symbol of harmony and unity. Rather than offering proof of America’s superiority, the photo encouraged a sense of global interconnectedness.

Since the Enlightenment, mapping and charting have emphasized man’s superiority over the Earth. Working against this hierarchy, Blue Marble evokes a sense of humility. The earth seemed extremely fragile and in need of protection.

In your book Sunrise on EarthRobert Poole wrote: “Although no one found the words to say it at the time, The Blue Marble was a photographic manifesto for global justice.”

Life after the death of Blue Marble

It is impossible to examine the Blue Marble and separate it from the urgency of today’s climate crisis.

It quickly became a symbol of the early environmental movement and was adopted by activist groups such as Friends of the Earth and annual events such as Earth Day.

The photo appeared on the cover of James Lovelock’s book Gaia (1979), postage stamps, and an early opening sequence by Al Gore An inconvenient truth (2006).

The ways we have viewed and visualized the Earth have changed over the decades.

Beginning in the 1990s, NASA created digitally manipulated images of the entire Earth, titled Blue Marble: Next Generation, in honor of the original Apollo 17 mission.

These are composite images made up of data stitched together from thousands of images taken at different times by satellites.

Space imaging technology continues to advance in its ability to depict astonishing detail. Art historians such as Elizabeth A. Kessler connect this new generation of images depicting the cosmos with the philosophical concept of the sublime.

The photographs create a sense of vastness and awe that can leave the viewer awestruck, similar to 19th century romantic paintings such as this one by Thomas Moran The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872).

In 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope revealed mountains of gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula. Known as the Pillars of Creation, the image captures gas and dust in the process of creating new stars.

Earlier this year, NASA released the first images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope.

Building on Hubble’s discoveries, Webb is designed to visualize infrared wavelengths with an unprecedented level of clarity.

These advances in technology may help explain the enduring charm of the photo from the perspective of 2022. The first photo of our planet was remarkably lo-fi.

Blue Marble is the last complete Earth photograph taken by an actual human using analog film: developed in a darkroom when the crew returned to Earth. The conversation

Chari Larson, Senior Lecturer in Art History, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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