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Earthrise: 50th anniversary

Earthrise: 50th anniversary
24 Dec
A half century has passed since the ‘Earthrise’ photograph – widely believed to have launched the global environmental movement – was taken

They call it the ‘overview effect’ – the feeling that astronauts have when they look down on the Earth and appreciate the fragility of the planet, the thin skin of atmosphere wrapped around this uniquely wet and diverse celestial body. Perhaps astronaut Commander Frank Borman summed it up best on Christmas Eve 1968, while orbiting the Moon in the spacecraft Apollo 8. ‘There’s a beautiful Moon out there,’ noted the radio message beamed up from NASA HQ in Houston.

‘Now I was just saying that there’s a beautiful Earth out there,’ quipped back Borman.

‘It depends on your point of view,’ concluded Houston.

Yet the most famous moment of Apollo 8’s orbits – eight months before Armstrong and Aldrin finally set foot on the Moon – had come nine hours earlier, when the astronauts were distracted during a scheduled photography session by a dramatic sight emerging from the darkness. ‘Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there!’ commented someone, likely lunar module pilot William ‘Bill’ Anders. ‘Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!’ Several minutes passed as the astronauts scrambled around, searching for a colour film to capture shots of the planet, with the cratered lunar surface in the foreground.

The resulting images – the first to show Earth from space – would go on to become immeasurably famous under the name ‘Earthrise’. The following year it became a US postage stamp and would go on to adorn countless T-shirts, magazine covers and works of art. Life magazine labelled it one of the ‘100 photographs that changed the world’, while Time include it as one of the 100 most influential images of all time. 

Perhaps most significant is the impact it had on the environmental movement. ‘Earthrise marked the tipping point, the moment when the sense of the space age flipped from what it meant for space to what it means for Earth,’ wrote Dr Robert Poole, reader in history at the University of Central Lancashire, in his 2008 book, Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth. The first Earth Day was marked in the US just over a year later, in April 1970, while the founding of environmental organisations such as Greenpeace wasn’t far behind. For the first time, the rest of humanity experienced a hint of that astronautical overview effect. 

Kathleen Rogers President of the Earth Day Network
‘When I talk to people, Earthrise comes up all the time as a motivating factor, not just for Earth Day, but for their engagement in the environmental movement. The sense that they belong to something bigger, that they had a greater responsibility than local environmentalism. The photo, above all, created this sense of community, that it was not just a local environment, or even a national environmental issue, but one that was global. It took on a dimension that was both environmental and spiritual. It may have been one of those rare science-spiritual stories in the history of mankind.’

Tony Juniper Environmental author, campaigner and sustainability consultant 
‘The moment that astronaut Bill Anders read passages from the Book of Genesis from the command module of Apollo 8 as it emerged from the dark side of the Moon was one that literally changed our perspective forever. The image the crew captured of our planet rising above the surface of our lifeless moon helped to kick-start the modern environmental movement, inspired by the very visual fact that we inhabit a living world which is suspended in the empty blackness of space. For the first time in history, we were no longer solely an Earth-bound species.’

James Lovelock Originator of the ‘Gaia’ theory
‘As long ago as the 1930s I became aware of space through the books by Jules Verne, H G Wells and others, to say nothing of the abundant American pulp magazines such as Astounding Stories. Even before the Second World War, the artist Chesley Bonestell had painted imaginary views of planetary surfaces. For these reasons the Earthrise photographs were not entirely surprising. Even so, it was thrilling to see the Earth from outside and be amazed at how blue it was. Floating like a jewel displayed on the black velvet of outer space. Arthur C Clarke commented that we should have called our planet Ocean, not Earth. More than 70 per cent of the view was that of the ocean. The view of the Earth led us to realise how special was our planet and led me to see it as a self-organising entity, something that the author William Golding called Gaia.’

Dr Mike Maunder Director of Life Sciences at The Eden Project
‘Those images speak of the beginnings of two extraordinary scientific ventures that are very relevant today. That little blue orb supported 3.5 billion people (7.2 today and rising), the elms were dying in the UK and the great rainforests were largely intact.  The term “plant genetic resources” was introduced at the 1967 International Conference on Crop Plant Exploration fuelling a path to one of humanities’ great conservation achievements, the global network of seed banks. Similarly, the Green Revolution officially started in 1968, courtesy of USAID, while increasing harvests it drove us towards today’s unsustainable food system. We are still wrestling with food security and sustainable agriculture, the next 50 years will be a roller coaster.’

Mark Nelson Biospherian, ecologist and author
‘Pondering our relationship to Biosphere 1 [Earth’s biosphere] led me to recall how space exploration changed human consciousness. Photos of Earth from the darkness of space stunned the world. For the first time, humanity saw the Earth, this spinning blue and white world which contains everything we value. Apollo astronauts enjoyed “Earthrise” over the horizon of the Moon. Their unique experience was called the “Overview Effect”.  It was a thrilling, life-changing perspective, the first humans separated from Earth’s biosphere.’
Quote taken from Pushing the Limits: Insights from Biosphere 2 by Mark Nelson

Denis Hayes National Coordinator of the first Earth Day and Chair of Earth Day 2020
‘The striking image in “Earthrise” – of a lovely planet, all by itself (aside from a barren moonscape) – conveyed a clear message that we must all come together to save it. For those of us working today on climate change, ocean acidification, endangered migratory species, and other worldwide threats 50 years later, that image of Earthrise remains lodged in our subconscious.’

This was published in the January 2019 edition of Geographical magazine

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