On December 7, 1972, the Apollo 17 team, made up of Eugene “Gene” Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Harrison Schmitt launched into space. They took part in the last mission of NASA’s Apollo program and the final manned mission to the Moon. When they were about 45,000 kilometers (28,000 miles) away from home—hurtling toward our natural satellite—the team captured something that forever changed the way we understand our planet.
Apollo 17 brought back many discoveries, one being the Earth. At this point in time, our view of our planet was only seen in fragments, like Apollo 8’s Earthrise, a partial marble of swirling clouds and blue oceans rising from the Moon’s surface. Now, with their Hasselblad camera in hand, the Apollo 17 team captured a photo titled The Blue Marble, the first full image of our globe.
The image features the continent of Africa stretching across the orb with twisting clouds covering its southern end and extending over the icy cap of Antarctica. Seeing this orientation of Earth disrupted Western conventions of cartography which rely on grids and a “correct” alignment of continents. And with Africa right in the middle of the snapshot, Eurocentric mapping traditions, which often reduce the continent's scale, were further challenged. Teasel Muir-Harmony, Apollo curator at the National Air and Space Museum, says, “It was part of this larger awareness of the value of images, not just in terms of science, but also in terms of culture and politics and all the other aspects that motivated the decision to take cameras into space in the first place.”
While this image harkened the beginning of a sense of global unification, it didn’t immediately garner attention. Headlines during this time were bombarded with pressing news like the Vietnam War coming to an end. Over time though, the image was adopted into the iconography of environmentalism, ubiquitous in the history of exploration, and a symbol of humanity. And after over 50 years later, this image still shows that the universe knows no man-made bounds.
Stephen Garber, a historian at NASA, says, “It gives you a much different sense of the world in which we live, that geographical and political boundaries are really meaningless when you get into space.” He adds, “And I think that's part of what was so special about The Blue Marble photo.”
On December 7, 1972, the Apollo 17 crew took the first full image of Earth—and 50 years later, it still stands tall as an incredible piece of exploration history.
View this post on Instagram