Earth from space: How pioneering photos changed our view of the planet

It’s over two millennia since Greek philosophers proposed that the Earth is round – but just 50 years since the first photos showing the whole planet were taken. Christopher Potter explores the history and impact of the first images of Earth from space

Earth Seen from Space Shuttle Discovery 1990

In 1948, the British physicist Fred Hoyle wrote that “once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available… a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose”. For millennia, human beings could only imagine what the Earth might look like seen from the viewpoint of the heavens. Some ancient Greek philosophers had suspected that the Earth was probably a sphere. Plato even thought that the Earth might be a brightly coloured sphere – but, being Plato, he had in mind a Platonic ideal of the Earth rather than the Earth itself. By the second century AD, the astronomer Ptolemy knew from scientific considerations – by observation and measurement – that the Earth is, indeed, round. But knowing is not the same as seeing. Where was the visual evidence?

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From the late 18th century, hot-air balloonists first saw the Earth from a perspective that was not part of the Earth itself – not from the top of a mountain or a cathedral spire, but from the perspective of another medium. And in 1935, as part of an expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society, Captains Albert Stephens and Orvil Anderson of the US Army Air Corps ascended in a gondola attached to a helium-filled balloon named Explorer II, reaching a record-breaking altitude of 13.7 miles (22km) – higher than any commercial jet aeroplane is permitted to fly even today. As the craft sailed high above South Dakota, a photograph taken from the balloon gondola captured a panorama stretching 330 miles (530km), revealing the curvature of the Earth for the first time. At last, here was visual rather than merely intellectual proof that we live on a vast sphere.

To see more of the Earth’s curving horizon, though, pictures would have to be taken from a higher vantage point. And to rise higher would require not balloons or even planes but rockets.

At the end of the Second World War, American forces captured the German engineer Wernher von Braun, the designer of the world’s first ballistic missile. His 14-metre-tall, 12.5-tonne rocket known as the V-2 had not affected the outcome of the war, as Hitler had hoped, but it was now to play a central role in the history of space exploration. On 16 April 1946 von Braun and his German colleagues – who would become US citizens – launched a V-2 on American soil.

Over the following few years more than 60 V-2s, modified to carry various kinds of scientific equipment, would be launched from a site in New Mexico. Clyde T Holliday, a photography specialist, was responsible for the difficult task of working out how to attach cameras that would survive the rockets’ impact. Holliday got his best set of aerial photos from a V-2 flight in 1948, taken at an altitude of 65 miles (105km). From these images, and another set of photographs taken from the flight of an Aerobee rocket launched an hour later, Halliday patched together a 2,700-mile- (4,350km-) wide panorama of the Earth – an image spanning one-tenth of the planet’s circumference.

In 1958, America’s newly formed space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), announced the launch of Project Mercury, a series of one-manned orbital flights. From the start, Nasa grandees were against the astronauts taking what they sneeringly called ‘tourist’ photographs of the Earth. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, had to insist on taking his own camera on board. He bought it at a local drugstore for $19.95. Not surprisingly, the photographs he took were worthless.

The situation improved when Richard Underwood was appointed to head up a small advisory group responsible for photography. After he graduated from university, Underwood had joined the US Army Corps of Engineers as part of an army project to study the Earth’s geological features from the air. It was said that he could identify any region of the Earth from an aerial photo.

Some remarkable photographs of the Earth seen from orbit were taken during the two-manned Gemini programme that followed Mercury. In June 1965, during the second crewed flight, Ed White became the first American to walk in space; from his unique vantage point he captured a few high-quality photographs of the Earth. Underwood pointed out to his still-sceptical Nasa bosses that, in such photos, they were looking at the planet as no human being had seen it before.

However, a photograph of the whole Earth could be taken only from much farther away – from outer space. On 10 August 1966, Lunar Orbiter 1 became the first American spacecraft to orbit the moon – and it carried a camera. It was just one of many missions undertaken to identify a possible landing place for the upcoming manned Apollo missions. Lunar Orbiter 1 had enough power to take only 211 pictures in medium resolution, but Underwood hoped that at least one of the photographs would be not of the moon but of the Earth. Yet it almost wasn’t taken.

A decision had still not been reached even when the craft was in orbit around the moon, and there were arguments right up to the last minute. Underwood was told that a shot of the Earth would be a waste of film, that such a photograph would have no scientific value, and so on. Eventually a senior figure at the meeting – the vice-president of Boeing – said: “To hell with it. It is a public service. It might be tremendous”.

Word spread around the centre that the picture had been taken. Joseph Karth, chairman of the congressional committee on space sciences, was soon on the phone to Lee Scherer, Nasa’s program manager, asking: “What’s all this about you taking a picture of the Earth?” Scherer was defensive, and started to reel off any reasons that popped into his head that seemed to justify the taking of the photograph. “Well, I don’t give a damn why you did it,” Karth cut in, “but me and 200 million other Americans thank you.”

When the photographs from the mission were released to the public, those of the moon attracted more attention. The subsequent official report summarising all five Orbiter missions did not mention the photograph of the Earth at all. Perhaps because of the poor quality of the image, its significance was missed. Though the photo was black and white, and much of the planet was in shadow, for the first time in human history an image of the whole Earth had been captured.

In early July the following year, 1967, the Department of Defense Gravity Experiment (DODGE) military satellite was launched. The director of DODGE predicted an educational use for satellites; no one at the time foresaw their power to change life on Earth utterly. Curiously, the evidence already existed. Just a few days earlier, the BBC had broadcast a live TV show called Our World, conceived by Aubrey Singer, which for the first time connected much of the world through the air waves. The programme featured artists from 19 countries, including Picasso and Maria Callas. During the closing segment from the UK, The Beatles – dressed in gorgeous hippy gear and surrounded by flowers – sang ‘All You Need is Love’ for the first time. The broadcast had been made possible by the existence of the latest satellites. Less than a week after the broadcast, the DODGE satellite transmitted back to Earth the first colour images of the whole planet fully illuminated.

Towards the end of 1967, an unmanned Saturn V rocket was tested for the first time in the Apollo 4 mission. Wernher von Braun’s masterpiece – a direct descendant of the V-2 – is still the largest rocket ever launched. Between 1968 and 1972, during the course of nine manned Apollo missions, Saturn V rockets would launch 24 Americans on journeys that took them to the moon and safely back to Earth.

On its first test in 1967, the Saturn V was unmanned but a camera mounted on the capsule on top of the rocket captured 700 images. From 11,000 miles (17,700km) above the Earth’s surface, Apollo 4 captured the first colour negatives of a fully illuminated Earth. Yet a Nasa press release produced after the mission failed to mention the photographs.

The images of the Earth transmitted by DODGE and the photographs taken by the Apollo 4 camera were made public, but none of them made much of an impact. It was yet to sink in that these pictures provided answers to an ancient mystery: what did the Earth look like from the outside?

On 21 December 1968, the three-man crew of Apollo 8 – the first manned mission to the moon – saw what no human being had ever witnessed before: the Earth as a sphere in space. Three days later, as they orbited the moon, the astronauts were the first to experience another extraordinary sight: the Earth ‘rising’ over the moon’s horizon. Crew member Bill Anders managed to capture the moment on photographic film. The images from DODGE and Apollo 4 showed the Earth as a drab blue-and-white sphere, but in Anders’ high-quality photograph – designated Nasa image AS8-14-2383, which soon became known popularly as ‘Earthrise’ – the Earth came colourfully alive.

'Earthrise', the now-famous image of our planet taken during the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968
‘Earthrise’, the now-famous image of our planet ‘rising’ above the moon’s horizon, captured on 24 December 1968 by astronaut Bill Anders during the Apollo 8 mission. It has been described as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken” (Time Life Pictures / Getty Images)

Later that same day, Christmas Eve, as they approached their tenth and last orbit of the moon, the crew made a final TV broadcast back to Earth. At the end of the transmission, each of the crew signed off in turn by reading the first verses of the book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…” Commander Frank Borman was the last to read: “And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters called he 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”.

In an article that appeared in the New York Times the following day – Christmas Day – journalist Edward Fiske wondered whether Apollo 8 had made urgent the need for some kind of synthesis between the sacred and the secular. He argued for a new version of Christianity, purged of the supernatural – something more in keeping with the space age. The Earthrise photograph reinforced in a humanistic way what many would have found unpalatable about the Genesis reading.

Fiske wrote that the photograph was a “humbling reminder of the world’s insignificance”. But was the Earth insignificant? The crew of Apollo 8 felt the opposite – that the Earth was the only thing out there of any real interest, the only thing of colour. Indeed, the photographer himself, Bill Anders, confessed that he had soon become bored by the moon’s unrelenting sameness.

Ironically, it was Pope Paul VI, addressing a crowd in St Peter’s Square soon after the Apollo 8 splashdown, who made one of the most perceptive secular observations: “The stature of man,” he said, “in prodigious confrontation with the cosmos emerges immensely small and immensely large”.

We now know that the Soviets had taken Earthrise-type photographs some weeks before the Americans, but they were of poor quality and in black and white. Underwood said that the Soviets plucked reels of film out of a bin, as if it were a tub filled with nuts and bolts. There was no consistency in the emulsions, and the stock was often out of date. Photography was never a priority for them, and became a priority for the Americans only because of Underwood’s advocacy.

The nine Apollo missions were framed by two photographs: Earthrise, taken during the first, and the so-called ‘Blue Marble’ photograph, taken during the last mission, Apollo 17. Underwood explained to astronaut Jack Schmitt that if he remembered to take a photograph about five hours into the flight after launch early on 7 December 1972, the chances were good that it would become a classic: this was the only mission in the sequence to launch at night, and at that point in the launch the astronauts would see the Earth brightly lit. Schmitt would be far enough away to see the planet as a sphere in space, but still close enough to capture the detail of its surface.

At five hours and six minutes after take-off, at a distance of about 28,000 miles (45,000km) from the Earth, Schmitt took one of the most famous photographs ever captured: the first detailed, high-quality colour photo of the whole Earth in full illumination – the ‘Blue Marble’.

What Fred Hoyle had not anticipated was that photographs of the Earth would begin to make an impact only when they were of high quality and in colour. In black and white, photographs of the Earth look just like any other heavenly body – but in colour they confirmed what the first ecologists had intuited decades earlier: seen from the outside, the Earth looks different from anything else.

James Lovelock, who had worked for Nasa, readily admitted that those first photographs were the inspiration behind his Gaia theory – the concept that the totality of life on Earth behaves as if it were a living entity. The Earth is varied and colourful because it is alive.

Nearly all of the 24 astronauts who saw the whole Earth from space – still the only humans to have seen for themselves the entire planet in a single glance – were struck by how fragile the Earth looks. From space, the Earth’s atmosphere appears as a thin blue line around the circumference of the planet, a hazy penumbra a mere 50 miles (80km) thick, clinging to a disk 7,917 miles (12,742km) across. “It is a pity,” wrote Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins, “that my eyes have seen more than my brain has been able to assimilate.” On his way back from the moon, he looked out of the window and tried to find the Earth, later describing his experience thus:

“The little planet is so small out there in the vastness that at first I couldn’t even locate it. And when I did, a tingling of awe spread over me. There it was, shining like a jewel in a black sky. I looked at it in wonderment, suddenly aware of how its uniqueness is stamped in every atom of my body… I looked away for a moment and, poof, it was gone. I couldn’t find it again without searching closely. At that point I made my discovery. Suddenly I knew what a tiny, fragile thing Earth is.”

Many Apollo astronauts would make the same point – that the real value of the missions had been not the discovery of the moon but the new perspective it gave them on the Earth they had left behind.

A number of them also came to believe – at least, at first – that seeing the Earth from the vantage point of space might be enough to change humans fundamentally. Apollo 16 astronaut John Young, who died in January, said that the experience made him realise that “we worry about the wrong things, like the price of a gallon of gas, rather than the Earth as a whole”. Mike Collins made a similar point: “the planet we share unites us in a way far more basic and far more important than differences in skin colour or religion or economic system”.

Some astronauts did indeed change their lives dramatically afterwards. Two years after he had returned to Earth, Apollo 14 astronaut Ed Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, an organisation devoted to the study of consciousness. On his return journey to Earth, Mitchell had experienced what he called an epiphany – that the universe is “in some way conscious”; it was not so much a religious experience, he said, but a natural response of the body “to the overwhelming sense of unity of the universe”.

A couple of astronauts began to write poetry; another began obsessively to paint the moon. Several turned to God – notably Apollo 15 astronaut Jim Irwin, who spent the last years of his life exploring Mount Ararat in Turkey in an attempt to find the remains of Noah’s Ark. Nasa doctor Charles A ‘Chuck’ Berry said that “no one who went into space wasn’t changed by the experience”.

From space, it is clear that our home is a finite resource, and that the borders between countries are artificial constructs. And yet we continue to live in ways that contradict these self-evident truths. Almost 50 years after Earthrise was taken, we might wonder whether the transformation that Hoyle predicted has truly come about. What lessons, if any, have we learned? Indeed, we might wonder whether the human species is capable of real change. Can we grow into the size of our brains, or will technological progress outstrip our ability to grow wise?

Every new generation now lives in a world of technology that seems like sorcery to those who lived just a generation or two before. But human beings are cynical by nature. We quickly grow bored. “People felt that the space programme put human problems in perspective and that humanity would change as a result,” Jim Lovell wrote, 40 years after his second mission to the moon. “But the mind forgets very easily, and not too long after that people got back to the way they lived before – wars and disruption and human cruelty.”

Soon after the first photographs of the Earth were made public, the writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the famous aviator Charles, wondered if it might take centuries before humans fully absorbed the implications of the new perspective offered by those images. Half a century later, scientific consensus suggests that humans have caused, and continue to cause, planet-altering environmental damage. It might be said that we’re not absorbing the implications anywhere near quickly enough.

Christopher Potter is the author of The Earth Gazers (Head of Zeus, 2017)

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This article was taken from issue 8 of BBC World Histories magazine