Earthrise: The ‘Discovery’ of our Planet from the Moon


This coming 20th of July will be the 50th anniversary of the “small step for a man” and “giant leap for mankind” which Neil Armstrong took on the surface of the Moon. In commemoration of this historic feat, the BBVA Foundation, in collaboration with Spanish national newspaper El Mundo, presents a special multimedia publication in which four experts analyze the significance of Apollo 11 from different perspectives. In this article, Robert Poole – Reader in History at the University of Central Lancashire (UK) and author of “Earthrise: How Man first saw the Earth” – explores how the image of our planet captured from lunar orbit transformed human awareness of the fragile cosmic home which human beings share with all other forms of life. A video interview with Dr. Poole is also available by clicking on the ‘play’ button on the image at the top of this page.

26 June, 2019

In 1968 the first view of the Earth from the Moon was not merely an image but an event. Such images are so easily available now that it is difficult to imagine a time when no-one had any real idea what the Earth would look like from the outside. The Gemini missions of the mid-1960s had brought back stunning colour images of Earth, but these were vast curving landscapes seen from a great height, not yet a planet. A distant photo of the whole Earth had been sent back as early as 1966 by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter probe, but in grainy black and white. Easily mistaken for the Moon seen from Earth, it somehow didn’t hit home.

The launch of Apollo 8 in December 1968 was different. The first manned test of the giant Saturn V rocket, it aimed for the first time to send three men out of Earth orbit and around the Moon. Their Christmas day broadcast from lunar orbit, when they talked of the beauty of the Earth compared to the barrenness of the Moon and read from the Book of Genesis (‘in the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth . . . and saw that it was good’), had the largest TV audience in history.

At the time the astronauts splashed back down in the Pacific ocean there were still no pictures to go with this awesome commentary. They knew however that the camera and film which they handed to the divers who opened their capsule contained one astonishing shot: Earthrise, taken while they were orbiting the far side of the Moon, out of communication with the Earth. The public had to wait for several days for the film to be processed and printed, and the images mailed out to the press TV stations. They created a sensation: the first colour images of the Earth, seen from the outside for the first time, no longer just home but a planet, floating in space.

The enthusiasts for space travel, whose technophile dreams were coming true before the eyes of all humanity, had expected that the first sight of Earth as a planet would cut it down to size, and spread an understanding that man’s future lay in exploring space exploration, not clinging timidly to its own muddy little rock like a child afraid to leave home. In fact it had the opposite effect: Earth filled the frame, the only coloured thing in the whole of space, surrounded by vacuum, the only oasis of life for light years around. It reversed the outward perspective of space travel, focusing attention on home.

Setting eyes on our home planet

The knowledge that there was a human eye behind the camera turned the image of Earthrise into a shared experience of homesickness and nostalgia. The overwhelming public reaction was similar to that of crew member Bill Anders, who took the famous photo: ‘I was almost immediately overcome by the thought that we came all this way to the Moon and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet, the Earth.’  As the journalist Norman Cousins later put it, ‘what was most significant about the lunar voyage was not that men set foot on the Moon, but that they set eye on the Earth’.

Earthrise was a surprise in other ways. Previously, NASA’s graphics had envisaged the Earth as a geographic globe on an almost cloudless day, dominated by green and brown land masses. Viewers were unprepared for the impressionistic-style Earth of blue and white, a natural object in which the even the land masses, let alone any signs of human activity, were invisible. Earth seemed not limitless and indestructible, as the doctrine of perpetual progress assumed, but small and fragile. The environmental movement, which had been gathering momentum since Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, now had an image which clearly showed that the Earth’s resources were indeed finite, and that there were natural limits to human expansion.

As soon as the Earth became visible it acquired friends, in the form of Friends of the Earth, founded in the USA 1969 and soon to spread internationally. The image of an Earth without borders brought back by Apollo 8 inspired the global citizenship campaigner John McConnell to use it on his Earth flag. He handed these out to people watching the Apollo 11 mission live in New York’s Central Park in July 1969; as men walked on the Moon, spectators flew the flag for Earth. McConnell went on to found the first Earth Day in San Francisco on 21 March 1970, followed closely by its more enduring east coast cousin on 23 April. Its is no coincidence that the years of the Apollo programme, 1968-1972, were also the years of the environmental renaissance which culminated in the first UN ‘Earth summit’ at Stockholm in 1972. The same year saw the Limits to Growth study by the Club of Rome, which first incorporated into economics the understanding that the Earth’s resources were finite. In all these grand vision -environmental, human, and economic- there was one ‘spaceship Earth’ on which there was no room for national boundaries and sectional interests.

A beautiful, fragile, finite place

In 1972 the last Apollo astronauts took off for the final manned Moon mission, Apollo 17. The crew, better prepared than their predecessors on Apollo 8, took that other iconic image of the space age, the ‘blue marble’ picture of the full Earth. At the end of the heroic age of manned spaceflight, it cemented the vision of the Earth as a beautiful, fragile, finite place. Taken on the journey out, looking back, it appeared after the last return of Apollo. After the long voyage out into space, the astronauts had made their final landfall back home. At the time it seemed ironic, but in retrospect it is obvious, that the greatest insight of the space programme was the discovery of the Earth.

How far have these Earth images transformed human awareness? At first there were high hopes in some quarters that, as the poet Archibald MacLeish put it, ‘To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know that they are truly brothers.’ The Association of Space Explorers, promoted by both American and Russian astronauts, sought to put these ideals into practice in the mid-1980s. ‘Astronauts and cosmonauts are the handful of people who have had the good fortune to see the Earth from afar and to realize how tiny and fragile it is,’ wrote the cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. ‘We hope that all the peoples of Earth can understand this.’ The association’s first congress in 1985 was on the theme of ‘The Planet, Our Home’. Its aim was ‘to protect and conserve the Earth’s environment’, and its poster showed the blue marble Earth, embellished with all the astronauts’ signatures.

Some writers have gone further, and drawing on a mixture of ‘one world’ socialism, systems theory, and new age utopianism, have proclaimed the emergence of a ‘planetary consciousness’. The most eloquent voice has been the space advocate Frank White, who in his 1987 book The Overview Effect (now in its fourth edition) argued that the enlightenment experienced by the astronauts at the sight of Earth from space would percolate through to humanity as a whole, inspiring people both to care for the Earth and to seek out new Earths. This contradictory pair of objectives was born of a desire to reconcile the reality of Earth’s uniqueness with the futurist fantasy of colonising other worlds. Thirty years on White and his ideas have a committed band of followers, but not yet the kind of mass following that had been expected. The Overview video can be found on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/55073825

A new look at life on Earth

The image of the Earth from space has been important in the development of the scientific understanding of the whole Earth and how it works. ‘Viewed from the distance of the Moon, the astonishing thing about the Earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive’ wrote the cell biologist Lewis Thomas in 1974. His words were echoed by the independent scientist James Lovelock, author of the influential 1979 book  Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. ‘The outstanding spin-off from space research is not new technology,’ he wrote. ‘The real bonus has been that for the first time we have had a chance to look at the Earth from space, and the information gained from seeing from the outside our azure planet in all its global beauty has given rise to a whole new set of questions and answers.’

When in the mid-1960s James Lovelock was asked to help NASA decide how to detect life on Mars, he turned the question round and asked how life on Earth could be detected. He decided that Earth’s complex atmosphere gave it away: without biological activity to keep oxygen, methane and C02 in dynamic balance, the atmosphere would quickly degrade until it was as simple (and dead) as those of Mars and Venus. The sight of the Apollo 8 pictures of the whole Earth gave him the inspiration to turn this insight into the Gaia hypothesis: that ‘the Earth’s living matter, air, oceans, and land surface form a complex system which can be seen as a single organism and which has the capacity to keep our planet a fit place for life.’ More simply, ‘the Earth… is actively made fit and comfortable by the presence of life itself.’  Even more simply, the Earth is alive.

While the Gaia hypothesis itself has not been fully accepted, its basic contention, that living and non-living systems interact to provide the conditions for life has become scientific orthodoxy. Environmental monitoring from space is now a vital tool in detecting and measuring the impact of human activity on the atmosphere, the oceans, and the entire planetary environment. NASA’s ‘Mission to Earth’ in the 1990s and its embrace of ‘Earth systems science’ have done much to shape the current scientific consensus about the impact of human activity on the Earth’s environment.

The assault on environmental science by the Trump presidency, accompanied by plans to revive the project of colonising the Moon and Mars, have put back the clock. But in the longer term they serve only to dramatise the choices which mankind must make, and to prompt initiatives at other levels all over the world.  Fifty years after Apollo, the international campaign over the climate crisis is at last giving practical effect to the insights about the whole Earth yielded by those first pictures of the whole Earth from space. Let us hope we are not too late.