The Blue Marble Shot: 45 years ago today, when science mattered, but there was plenty to worry about

This is the first photograph ever taken of the whole round Earth, the Blue Marble Shot, taken 45 years ago today. The only one ever taken by human hands. You have to go 20,000 miles up into space to see the home planet as a globe, and only 24 human beings have ever gone that far; the 3-man crews of the 9 Apollo missions that went to the Moon between 1968 and 1972. Six crews landed there, 3 astronauts got two trips. But only the last 3 saw the full Earth.

Harrison Schmitt, likely photographer, first member of NASA’s scientist-astronaut group in space, after the last walk humans took on the Moon. Dec. 13, 1972 – 45 years from next Wednesday 

For anybody who grew up with this image as common currency – on flags, t-shirts, postage stamps, classroom textbooks – it would be hard to explain the impact of seeing this for the first time. From 1968 to 1972, it was all cracking apart; 1968 the year of assassinations, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The Chicago riot, the Democratic National Convention; the party fractured and violence on the streets of Chicago. Newark and Detroit, still reeling from their riots the summer before. The Vietnam War. Generational divides. 1972, the Watergate break-in and a lawless Republican president. And that was just here. The rest of the world had it’s own problems, as it warily observed the United States sent people far past the bounds of this place.

When this photo hit, I was a kid, but I remember the impact. Human eyes had never seen this; lit-up bright; one planet, not chopped into competing factions but swimming in blue waters and spinning in blackness all together as one. We weren’t used to thinking in global terms; the United Nations was only 27 years old then.

The Blue Marble Shot doesn’t show New Jersey, it was the other side of the Earth spinning towards the Apollo 17 astronaut who took this, probably Harrison Schmitt. He was the first scientist we sent to the Moon; he became a U.S. senator. That’s Africa in the foreground, Madagascar off its eastern edge, Europe above. That year, 1972, I was in Albania, where my father Alex came from; then a communist country surrounded by hostile nations, not even recognized by the U.S.. Albania’s in this photo, but I like the fact the national borders aren’t visible in the planetary view, so you can’t see where I was shot at when I got too close to the border with Greece. And you can’t see where American spies parachuted onto the shores of the Great Presba Lake on the Albania/Greek border. Quite illegally, and very surprised to find that an American family watched them come down out of the atmosphere.They nearly took us into custody, believing we were spies like they were.

And Africa, in the middle there, the farthest on the globe I’ve ever traveled, where my grandmother grew up in Zimbabwe, under the white clouds of The Blue Marble.

In New Jersey, 45 years to the day after this photograph was taken, I watch another untrustworthy president – this one even darker than Richard Nixon – daring a young North Korean leader to launch nuclear war. Taking steps in the Middle East that rile up every country around Israel, which we’ve pledged to “protect,” even if we help start, or fund, the hostilities that threaten it. I wonder what Donald Trump thinks about when he looks at this photo, or reflects on Pearl Harbor Day, 76 years ago today. Or Benjamin Netanyahu. Or Kim Jong-Un.

I wish I had more confidence that the people who’ve taken on responsibility for whole chunks of this planet above think in planetary terms, and realize one wrong move can mean we all could stop spinning together in blue waters. But somehow I doubt they give it a thought.

Read the story of The Blue Marble Shot: Our First Complete Photograph of the Earth at The Atlantic. Hat/tip my friend Geo Geektress. Sometimes she really lives up to that name. 

President of the United States looks directly at the Sun. Solar Eclipse, August 20, 2017



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