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The Whole Earth Disk: An Iconic Image of the Space Age

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Earth from Apollo 17. NASA Image #AS17-148-22727

Who has not seen the bright blue and white image of the Earth, swaddled in clouds and looking inviting, in numerous places and in various settings? Taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts on December 7, 1972, this photograph is one of the most widely distributed images in existence. It was the best one taken by these astronauts of a fully lit Earth, as the astronauts had the Sun behind them when they took the image. Sometimes called the “blue marble,” this photograph taken during the translunar coast en route to the Moon, showed the Mediterranean Sea area in the north and extended to a good depiction of the to the Antarctic south polar ice cap. There was a heavy cloud cover in the Southern Hemisphere but the majority of the coastline of Africa is clearly visible, especially the Arabian Peninsula, Madagascar, and portions of the Asian mainland.

As early as 1966, environmental activist Stewart Brand began a campaign for NASA to release an image of the whole Earth in space. Brand even made up buttons that asked, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the Whole Earth yet?” He sold them on college campuses and mailed them to prominent scientists, futurists, and legislators. Not until the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, however, did “Whole Earth” become a reality. As Brand recalled: “I was a big fan of NASA and of then ten years of space exploration that had gone up to that point, and there we were in 1966, having seen a lot of the moon and a lot of hunks of the Earth, but never the complete mandala… it was a bit odd that for ten years, with all the photographic apparatus in the world, we hadn’t turned the cameras that 180 degrees to look back.” This story has been told and retold in various ways, with some authors suggesting that Brand had alleged a NASA cover-up of secret photographs, although, his statements do not reflect this belief.

To capture this iconic image the astronaut/photographer used a 70-millimeter Hasselblad camera with an 80-millimeter lens. It was virtually impossible to tell who on the Apollo 17 crew actually took the photograph—Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans, or Harrison Schmitt—all of whom took many photographs with the Hasselblad cameras aboard the spacecraft during the mission. More recent analysis credits Schmitt with the photo, but it cannot be determined for certain.

Stewart Brand put the photograph on the cover of his Whole Earth Catalog. This image, and the other stunning photographs of the Earth taken from space, inspired a reconsideration of our place in the universe.  It became the rallying cry of environmental activists, politicians, and scientists during the annual Earth Day celebrations. They used it as an object lesson of the Earth as a small, vulnerable, lonely, and fragile body teeming with life in a dull, black, lifeless void. While self-regulating and ancient, humanity proved a threat to this place. According to Brand and other ecologists, the Earth required human protection and the Whole Earth disk signaled its fragility.

Earthrise as seen from Apollo 8 spacecraft while orbiting the Moon in December, 1968. NASA Image #EL-2001-00365

The whole Earth image, as well as the earlier Earthrise photograph prompted the people of the world to view the planet Earth in a new way. Writer Archibald MacLeish summed up the feelings of many people when he wrote at the time of Apollo, that “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 now that they are truly brothers.” The modern environmental movement was galvanized in part by this new perception of the planet and the need to protect it and the life that it supports.

Roger D. Launius is senior curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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12 thoughts on “The Whole Earth Disk: An Iconic Image of the Space Age

  1. Hi-
    This is a great story. As a child of the 80s, I grew up seeing pictures of the “whole earth,” and so it is hard to understand what it must have been like for people in the 70s to see the earth in its entirety for the first time.

    Stewart Brand actually talks about the experience at click! photography changes everything. Check his story out here:

    Smithsonian Photography Initiative

  2. I attended a lecture by Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt last fall in Cleveland and he talked about this photo. Schmitt claimed he took the photo. There was a little story behind it, though.

    To paraphrase his story: Schmitt was a professional geologist (only scientist [so far, I hope] to go to the moon), but also an avid meteorologist. On the trip to the moon–while Cernan and Evans were preoccupied with other tasks in the capsule–he was fascinated by studying the weather patterns back on Earth. He spent a lot of time looking out the window at the earth, snapping photos, including the famous one in question.

    When Cernan and Schmitt landed on the moon and started their EVA, Cernan, for the first time, looked up and saw the full disk of the earth in the lunar sky. He asked Schmitt to stop for a moment and take it all in. Schmitt–having spent the last 3 days looking towards home–replied ‘seen one earth, seen them all…’

  3. Its simply marvelous. I got goosebumps and felt like crying when I thought for a moment about our place in this eternal void ocean.

  4. The photograph from Apollo 8 was taken by Bill Anders. That mission originally was to be earth orbital but 700 miles above the Earth rather than the 100 miles or so most had been. There was information the Soviet Union was going to do a lunar orbital mission. In a period of three months NASA changed the mission for Apollo 8 from Earth orbital to lunar orbital. That is remarkable in that the Saturn 5 booster they used to propel the astronauts had been going through a series of disastrous results. The kinks had been worked out over the year or so and the the mission took off without a hitch. Apollo 8, for me, is one of the most amazing of all Apollo flights.

  5. As a fourteen year old in 1972 I gazed many times in wonder at this photo, which was reproduced in a poster displayed at my school . Seeing this again years later I have been struck not only by the same original awe, but with an even greater sense of the fragility of life on earth. This image tells the whole story of our climatic extremes, and our dependence on the dark,mysterious oceans and the thinnest of veils of atmosphere. I notice now with fresh eyes, our atmosphere that nourishes and protects us, can not even be discerned along the Earth’s rim. What a precious world we live in!

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  7. What an amazing story. And the images are stunning. Thank you for sharing this with the world.

  8. The first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, which appeared in Fall 1968, already had on its cover a color image of our planet Earth, some weeks before Apollo 8 would embark on its Christmas journey around the Moon. This photo had been shot in November 1967 by the unmanned NASA satellite ATS-3 from geosynchroneous orbit.

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