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Figure 1: Apollo 17, Blue Marble, December 7, 1972. (NASA Photo) 

Climate Change

The Story of the Blue Marble

This picture above of the Earth by NASA Apollo Astronaut Harrison Schmitt en route to the Moon on Apollo 17 remains to this day one of the most famous and most viewed photographs of all time. From deep in space, our Earth appeared to the astronauts as a small blue marble. Hence the name. With the sun directly behind the camera and the Earth tilted on its axis at 23.5 degrees, the time of year must be December since Antarctica is fully illuminated and the North Pole is hidden from view. The photograph was taken on December 7, 1972.

This image and those taken earlier on the Apollo 11 mission totally reshaped the human view of our planet. It gave a new perspective that we live on a tiny ball floating alone in the vast expanse of space; that our atmosphere is only a tiny sliver on the limb (horizon) of the earth; that because of these facts and this new perspective, we must to everything in our power to protect it. It gave rebirth to the movement to stop global warming, which, in spite of everything the fossil fuel industry has done to dissipate and halt, struggles onward to this day.

 1968–1969: Earthrise over the Moon from Apollo 8, and the First Man on the Moon with Apollo 11

Figure 2: Apollo 8 Blasts off for a Journey Around the Moon from Kennedy Space Center, 1968 (NASA Photo)

December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 is launched on the first manned mission to the moon. Apollo 8 had no Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) and did not land but orbited around the moon and returned to Earth.

Figure 3: Apollo 8 Launch from a Distance on December 21, 1968 (NASA Photo)

Figure 4: Apollo 8 Command and Service Modules looked like this at the Moon, 1968 (NASA Photo)

Figure 5: Earth Rise over the Moon, 1968 (NASA Photo)

Figure 6: Simulated Earth Rise over the Moon, 1968 (NASA Photo)

This photo was probably taken from the LEM on a later mission but illustrates what the Command Capsule and Service Module would have looked like on Apollo 8. Apollo 8 was manned by Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders. This mission was designed to prove that men could go to the vicinity of the moon and return safely to Earth. James Lovell would command the ill-fated Apollo 13 in 1970 and miss his chance to walk on the moon. The first lunar landing would occur only seven months later with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and “Buzz” Aldrin on Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969.

In 1968 we were stunned to see spectacular pictures of an “Earthrise” over the moon from Apollo in the New Year’s issue of Life Magazine on January 10, 1969. As I wrote this on Christmas Day 2018, I had just received a message from Bill Anders who reminisced on taking this photograph from Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 50 years ago.

I was very touched to hear of astronaut Bill Anders reminiscing on Christmas Day 2018 on having his “breath taken away” on seeing the Earth rise over the Moon’s horizon on Christmas Eve 50 years ago. He broke away from his tightly scripted schedule to take photograph after photograph of the small blue and white ball, the only touch of color in the vast blackness of space. Without a light meter, he took many different exposures to make sure he got at least one good picture. He spoke of holding up his fist which completely blocked his view of Earth. It was that moment that turned the astronaut’s intense focus on the Moon back to our Earth that they had left four days earlier. It was that moment that struck the astronauts how little separates the Earth we know from the nothingness of space. They were convinced that humankind must be dedicated to protecting our fragile little Blue Marble if we expect to keep living here.

The Apollo 8 crew had simple instructions for their message back to Earth: Say something appropriate! For their Christmas Eve message from the moon, Bill AndersJim Lovell, and Frank Borman recited Old Testament Bible Book of Genesis chapter 1, verses 1 through 10 verbatim.

William Anders: “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.”

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

James Lovell:

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day

Frank Borman:

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.

“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

I am newly struck by the audaciousness of the Apollo 8 mission and the tremendous risks that were taken by NASA and the astronauts to perform it. As reported in a NOVA special “Apollo’s Daring Mission” that was released on Christmas Eve on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8 going to the moon, NASA had changed the mission of Apollo 8 from Earth orbit to a lunar rendezvous only four months earlier. This would be the first time humans had ventured more than a few hundred miles from Earth and visited another heavenly body. CIA spy satellites had just observed the immense Soviet N1 rocket on the launchpad and NASA was determined to not let the Russians beat us to the moon. The massive 366 ft. tall three-stage Saturn V rocket had only been launched twice before and only once successfully. The rocket engine that had to fire three times to break the bonds of Earth, insert Apollo 8 into lunar orbit, and send it back to Earth had never been reignited in space. The primitive computer system, absolutely necessary for precise aiming and timing of that rocket, had never been tested in space before.

The first launch of the incredibly huge Saturn V on November 7, 1967, was the first of a series of very risky moves that NASA made to keep the Apollo program on schedule to meet Kennedy’s goal “to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.” It had always been the practice of Verner von Braun and NASA to test each component separately before a final systems test. However, on November 7, 1967, the entire three-stage Saturn V rocket was launched together and performed perfectly. On April 4, 1968, on the second launch of the Saturn V rocket, the second stage shut down early and the third stage did not ignite: failure! In spite of having only one successful launch, only eight months later, December 21, 1968, three Apollo 8 astronauts on top of the Saturn V were on their way to the moon. From the first tests of Apollo rockets and capsules in 1961 to the Moon landing in 1969 was an incredibly short eight years.

By comparison, the last launch of the Space Shuttle was July 8, 2011. Since then, until recently, the only way for US astronauts to get to the International Space Station (ISS) has been to fly to Russia and hitch a ride on a Soyuz spacecraft for $81 million per seat. NASA has issued a contracts of $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX for crewed spacecrafts to transport astronauts to the ISS and back. The SpaceX Dragon did not launch with a crew until May 30, 2020, which was 9 years just to get humans back into space in a US spacecraft. Note, however, that SpaceX has been making unmanned resupply flights to the ISS since 2013.

NASA’s new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) spacecraft is designed for deep space missions. It is similar the Apollo Command Module but will hold four astronauts to Apollo’s three. The first uncrewed test flight of Orion was on December 5, 2014. The first crewed test of Orion will most likely not happen before 2023, a gap of at least 9 years.

The underfunded, risk averse, glacial pace of the current space program stands in dramatic contrast to the incredibly risky, aggressive pace of the original Apollo program.

Figure 7: Apollo 8 Crew — Bill Anders, Jim Lovel, and Frank Borman, 1968 (NASA Photo)

Figure 8: The Lunar Module of Apollo 11 above the Moon. Earth beyond. 1969 (NASA)

Figure 9: Apollo 11 Lands on the Moon on July 20, 1969 (NASA Photo)

On July 20, 1969, President Kennedy’s promise was fulfilled by Apollo 11: “to place man on the moon before the end of this decade.” Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and “Buzz” Aldrin had launched from Kennedy Space Center four days earlier on July 16, 1969. Neil Armstrong died in 2012, but Buzz Aldrin is still alive at age 91 as of November 2021.

Figure 10: Apollo 11 on the Moon, 1969 (NASA Photo)

At its maximum during the Apollo era, NASA’s budget of $4 billion/year, mostly for Apollo, was almost 5% of the total federal budget and NASA employed over 100,000 civil servants. The Soviet economy at that time was only one quarter the size of the US economy, and the Soviet space agency couldn’t keep up. The Soviets launched the first satellite and had the first man in space, but ultimately, the US won the space race to the moon.

Figure 11: Florida East Coast Thunderstorms from the NASA Gemini Capsule, 1965 (NASA Photo)

At this time, we were thrilled to see the first high-resolution Hasselblad 70mm film photos of Earth & clouds from Gemini. The astronauts were looking down on the East Coast of Florida and Cape Kennedy from which they blasted into space only a short time earlier. This is an especially good view of our extremely thin atmosphere seen on the limb (horizon) of the earth in this image.

1972: The Origin of the Blue Marble Image

Figure 12A: Harrison Schmitt Driving a Moon Buggy on the Apollo 17 mission (NASA Photo)

Figure 12B: Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17, Flag, & Earth (NASA Photo)

Figure 13: First true color picture of Earth, taken on January 15, 2017, by a weather satellite. Taken from the new Suomi weather satellite, named after my University of Wisconsin professor. Over the previous 40+ years, NOAA couldn’t be convinced that true color images of the Earth were part of their mission. That’s why my images which were the first to show the Western Hemisphere in color were false color made from visible and infrared weather satellite images. NASA via (Fritz Hasler Photo)

On December 7, 2022, we will be saying: “50 years ago today, Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon, left Cape Kennedy at 12:33 a.m.” The Blue Marble photograph in Figure 1 was taken about 5 hours and 6 minutes after launch of the mission, and about 1 hour 54 minutes after the spacecraft left parking orbit around Earth to begin its trajectory to the Moon. The time of the photo was 5:39 a.m. EST (which is just after noon at 12:39 p.m. in Johannesburg, South Africa). On board were commander Gene Cernan and his crewmates Ron Evans and Harrison Schmitt. Of the 18 astronauts to go to the moon, 17 were test pilots, chosen for their ability to perform difficult tasks in cramped space under pressure and potentially dangerous conditions. However, under great political pressure, for the last mission to the moon, NASA also chose one trained scientist with a specialty in geology to spend three days observing the geology of the moon and collecting samples. His name was Harrison Schmitt. 

In addition, Schmitt was assigned the task of taking the Blue Marble photo. Taken en route to the Moon on Apollo 17 with a Hasselblad 70 mm film camera, it remains to this day one of the most famous and most viewed photographs of all time. Three days later, from deep in space, when the astronauts were near the moon, our Earth appeared to the them as a small blue marble, hence the name. 

Why is this photograph so remarkable? Why do we still look at it in awe almost 50 years later?

  1. It is the only high-quality color photograph ever taken by a person with a camera that shows a fully illuminated full Earth disk.
  2. It shows the large, easily recognizable, largely cloud-free continent of Africa as well as part of the Middle East.
  3. The brownish/orangish deserts of Africa contrast beautifully with the blue oceans, white clouds, and white glaciers of Antarctica.
  4. It shows almost the whole continent of Antarctica.
  5. It shows a series of three cyclonic storm systems over the Southern Ocean in procession around Antarctica.
  6. It’s a gorgeous photograph of our home, our Earth!

The keys to the photo are as follows:

  1. With the sun, directly behind the camera and the Earth tilted on its axis by 23.5 degrees with the North Pole pointing away from the camera, it follows that the month of year must be December since you can see almost the entire continent of Antarctica, which is fully illuminated while the high northern latitudes and the North Pole are hidden from view.
  2. You can tell the Sun is almost directly behind the camera, because Earth is fully illuminated, and the limb is sharp except for the lower right portion of the image where it is only slightly blurred.
  3. At the time of day and season of the year that the photograph was taken, Africa and Antarctica were the primary continents facing the camera.

I am very thankful to Harrison Schmitt for several email communications that tell the story of what he was thinking and the sequence of events leading up to the making of the Blue Marble photograph.

Schmitt was expecting to see a fully illuminated Earth, because as he told me: “I had the onboard copy of the flight plan including line images of the Earth at the appropriate phases.”

Although Schmitt was taken by the beauty of our Earth that was quickly receding from the Apollo capsule, there was no way he could appreciate at the time how the simple act of taking this photograph would affect humankind for the next 50 years.

Just before Schmitt took the picture, there was the following exchange:

Ron Evans: “Did you get any pictures of that, Jack?”

Harrison Schmitt: “We got some pictures earlier. I’m going to get another one here in a minute. I’ll tell you, if there ever was a fragile-appearing piece of blue in space, it’s the Earth right now.”

At that moment, history was made, Schmitt recorded the iconic Blue Marble image with his Hasselblad 70mm film camera. Schmitt also relates how he was also able to look at the Earth before him in greater detail with a small telescope (monocular):

“One of the things that we miss in our training is a good geography lesson and particularly [one] on Antarctica. I got the monocular (10X) out and apparently the dark band that … Ron mentioned as the interface between the continent and water is [actually] that between pack ice and the water. And you can, by very subtle changes in the apparent smoothness of the ground, probably make out where the actual continent begins and the pack ice ends. There are a few exposed [mountain] ranges. I guess it’s midsummer down there now and you can make out the snow-free areas scattered at least in the northern portions of the continent.”

Figure 14: Apollo 17 Astronaut’s Tiny Blue Marble on 07 December, 1972 (NASA Photo)

This reduced size version of the Blue Marble is meant to simulate how small our Earth looked to the astronauts viewing it from the distance of the moon. When Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders was the first to see the partially illuminated Earth from this distance on that first manned voyage to the Moon in 1968, he spoke of holding up his fist and that it completely blocked his view of Earth. However, it wasn’t until Apollo 17 in 1972 when the astronauts observed the fully illuminated Earth that the term Blue Marble was first used.

If you recall in the movie Apollo 13, Tom Hanks playing the role of Jim Lovel before the mission, held up his thumb at arm’s length, which completely blocked out the moon. You can try this yourself.

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Arthur Frederick (Fritz) Hasler, PhD, former leader of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization & Analysis Laboratory (creator of this iconic image), and avid CleanTechnica reader. Also: Research Meteorologist (Emeritus) at NASA GSFC, Adjunct Professor at Viterbo University On-Line Studies, PSIA L2 Certified Alpine Ski Instructor at Brighton Utah Ski School.


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