Apollo 40 years on: how the moon missions changed the world for ever

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Photographs from the Apollo missions reshaped how we see the Earth and ourselves, while the ingenuity that put men on the moon gave birth to technologies that we all use today


Christopher Riley

On 19 December 1972, a final sonic boom above the south Pacific signalled the end of the Apollo programme, as a tiny space capsule burst back through the blue sky. On board were the last three astronauts to visit the moon on Apollo 17. Riding home with them was the precious negative of a photograph that would go on to become the most reproduced image in human history.

Frame number 22725 in magazine NN was a single shot of the whole Earth – later branded “the Blue Marble”. Snapped 12 days earlier by astronaut-geologist Harrison Schmitt as the spacecraft accelerated away from the Earth, the picture was immediately captivating.

Journeying southwards, towards the moon, Schmitt had seen his home planet upside down, with the continent of Antarctica sprawling over the top. Below it the entire African land mass arced downwards towards the cradle of civilisation in the Middle East, with the edge of southern Europe right at the bottom. On a rare, relatively cloudless day, so many human histories, causes and stories were on show in one view.

Subsequently, this single image was embraced by everyone from NGOs working in the developing world to the environmental movements seeking to protect our planet. For 40 years it has been used to change minds, behaviours and political policies.

The 'blue marble' photo of the Earth taken from Apollo 17. Photograph: Harrison Schmitt/Nasa

The ‘blue marble’ photo of the Earth taken from Apollo 17. Photograph: Harrison Schmitt/Nasa

Just four years separated Blue Marble from another profound Apollo picture – Earthrise, captured by Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968. Anders’s Apollo 8 portrait of our vibrant-blue planet, juxtaposed against the barren, brown-grey horizon of the moon, drew attention to Earth’s apparent fragility.

Such images led one commentator to conclude that “on the way to the moon we’d discovered the Earth”. They prompted many into thinking differently about our home planet. One such person was Stewart Brand, who self-published his ecologically themed Whole Earth Catalogue the same year, with a colour image of the entire Earth seen from space on the cover.

Brand’s vision was for his new quarterly magazine to create a “self-sustaining, critical information service”, and he soon nurtured it into a forum for the exchange of ideas suggested by the readers themselves. The Whole Earth Catalogue ran into the mid-80s, when Brand’s concept for a “self-sustaining, critical information service” would find a new platform in Usenet newsgroups on the internet, and eventually on the world wide web.

American poet Archibald MacLeish, also influenced by these visions of the whole Earth from space, penned an essay in the New York Times, as Apollo 8 was heading home in December 1968, pointing out the eternal loveliness of such pictures of Earth from space. For MacLeish these images suddenly revealed us all as “brothers who know now they are truly brothers… riders on the Earth together”.

Bill Anders’s 1968 Earthrise image also captured the attention of peace activist John McConnell, who printed it on flags and handed them out in Central Park, New York, the following summer as Apollo 11 became the first mission to land on the moon. His actions would later lead to the founding of Earth Day – an annual celebration of awareness and appreciation of Earth’s natural environment that is still held today in more than 175 countries. Shortly afterwards Friends of the Earth was formed by David Brower and other campaigners who felt that if there was one thing the Earth needed it was friends. ………………….
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Written by physicsgg

December 16, 2012 at 9:02 am

Posted in SPACE

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