If you had to pick one key moment when the environmental movement really gathered momentum, you’d have to pick 1968 when William Anders and his crew of Apollo 8 took this iconic picture of the earth rising over the moon. Ever since it has been known as “Earthrise“. It is a photo that has captured (and united) hearts and minds across the planet. It is the screen saver on my Mac, Al Gore opens his lectures with it and the famous photographer Galen Rowell declared it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken” in Life’s 100 photographs that changed the world.
“They should have sent poets and not astronauts, because we couldn’t capture the grandeur of what we had seen”. Frank Borman, Apollo 8.
It’s a dramatic photo that showed us for the very first time what our planet actually looked like but I can’t even begin to imagine, but I can’t even begin to imagine how it must have felt to be alongside William Alison Anders as he took the picture on that first manned voyage to orbit the moon. For any photo geeks reading this, the photograph (NASA image AS08-14-2383) was taken from lunar orbit on December 24, 1968, 16:00 UTC, with a highly modified Hasselblad 500 EL with an electric drive. The camera had a simple sighting ring rather than the standard reflex viewfinder and was loaded with a 70 mm film magazine containing custom Ektachrome film developed by Kodak.
Science writer Frank White wrote about “the overview effect” in 1987 referring to the impact space exploration has on humans and especially how it changes the perspective of astronauts and their sense of identity. He quotes Russell Schweickart, an astronaut on the Apollo 9, who shared his perspective about how you think about Earth when you view it from this vantage point.
“You identify with Houston and then you identify with Los Angeles and Phoenix and New Orleans. And the next thing you recognise in yourself is that you’re identifying with North Africa – you look forward to that, and anticipate it, and there it is.
And that whole process of what is you identify with begins to shift. When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognise that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change. You look down there and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don’t even see them. there you are – hundreds of people in the Mideast killing each other over some imaginary line that you’re not even aware of and that you can’t see.
From where you see it, the thing is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. You wish you could take one in each hand, one from each side of the various conflicts, and say, ‘Look. Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What’s important?‘”. Russell Schweickart, Apollo 9
Makes you think doesn’t it?
As we stand together on this little blue marble, there is more that unites us than divides us.
“To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers”. Archibald MacLeish
<< NASA “updated” the Earthrise photo in 2015 with this incredible composite image >>
If you want to read more, here’s a great TIME magazine article about the evolution of the “Blue Marble” photograph.