The incredible story behind an image we've all seen hundreds of times, possibly the most reproduced photograph in history
It's an iconic image we have all seen hundreds of times, possibly thousands, and probably the most widely reproduced photograph in history. Because it's in the public domain it has been used for everything from car commercials to the Earth Day flag, printed on T-shirts, postage stamps, billboards, book covers, mouse pads -- most any surface you can print on. It even has its own Facebook page. In the NASA archive its formal designation is AS17-148-22727 but it's commonly known as The Blue Marble Shot, and forty years later we still aren't sure who actually took it.
It was the first photograph taken of the whole round Earth and the only one ever snapped by a human being. You can't see the Earth as a globe unless you get at least twenty thousand miles away from it, and only 24 humans ever went that far into outer space. They were the three-man crews of the nine Apollo missions that traveled to the moon between 1968 and 1972, six of which landed there successfully (three men went twice). But only the last three saw a full Earth.
In order to see our planet as a fully illuminated globe you need to pass through a point between it and the sun, which is a narrower window than you might think if you're traveling at 20,000 miles an hour. Most of the men who flew lunar missions saw neither a full Earth nor a full moon; both heavenly bodies were partly in shadow -- complementary shadows, like lovers walking past a streetlamp -- the entire flight. Their trajectories were determined by the landing sites they were scouting or targeting, and those were mainly on the eastern face of the moon as seen from Earth.
If you were at the controls of a spacecraft attempting to land on the moon you wanted the sun behind you at an angle between seven and twelve degrees above the horizon, so it cast long shadows from boulders you might not see otherwise. This means that you were aimed at a crescent moon when you launched from Earth three days before. The first landing on Apollo 11, for instance, blasted off toward a new quarter-moon and the crew saw no more than a three-quarter Earth.
It wasn't until the last Apollo mission that NASA targeted a landing site on the far western face of the moon: the rumpled Valley of Taurus Littrow, which earthly geologists thought might be the least disturbed and thus primordial of the possible landing sites. This meant launching toward a nearly full moon, which in turn meant departing from Florida at night. It was the only night launch of the mighty Saturn V, the most stupendous rocket ever built, and took place on December 7, 1972.
The three men atop the rocket were Eugene Cernan, the Commander of Apollo 17; Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, the Lunar Module Pilot who would accompany Cernan down to the surface if all went well; and Ron Evans, the Command Module Pilot who would remain in lunar orbit, keeping their return ship running while his crewmates did the glamorous exploring. All three have claimed that they took the famous Blue Marble Shot.
On the five previous Apollo missions the commanders, all space veterans, were allowed to choose who would land with them on an alien world. All had picked rookies, loyal sidekicks they felt comfortable with and confident in. For Apollo 17 Cernan had chosen Joe Engle, a former X-15 pilot, and the two trained for months as the backups for Apollo 14. Then by established NASA policy they rotated together to prime crew status on Apollo 17.
But then Congress canceled the funding for Apollo 18, which also had a crew that trained together for months. The Lunar Module Pilot on that crew was Jack Schmitt, a Harvard-trained geologist who was a scientist-astronaut. Six of them were selected amid great nerdy fanfare in 1965 but none had been assigned to a mission until Schmitt got a seat on the very last planned flight. They were generally regarded as dorks by the pilot astronauts, Right Stuff bravos like Cernan and Engle who between them had flown a hundred different aircraft, from helicopters to rocket planes, landing on everything from heaving carriers to empty deserts. When political pressure bumped Engle in favor of Schmitt on Apollo 17 a very odd couple was sent to the moon.
They were busy as hell the first six hours. Lunar missions only made two orbits around the earth, three hours of frantic preparation before cranking it up to escape velocity. They were coming around to the daylight side for the third time when the last booster fired for six minutes to propel them away from the human planet. There were a thousand critical things they had to do next: separate from that final booster stage, accomplish a delicate docking maneuver with the service module, reorient and stabilize their new combined spacecraft, check all the various systems and compute their trajectory, and climb out of the awkward hardsuits they'd been wearing since blast-off.
They weren't supposed to be taking pictures. Photo sessions were scheduled events in a rigorous flight plan that detailed every step essential to success. The film itself was strictly rationed like everything else on those perilous flights; there were 23 magazines onboard for the 70mm Hasselblad cameras, twelve color and eleven black-and-white, all intended for serious documentation purposes. They weren't supposed to be looking out the window, either.
But they couldn't help it, none of them. If you talk to any of the lunar travelers today -- eighteen of them are still alive -- they will talk most about and remember best the stolen moments of watching their home world shrink behind them. It was a blue-green beacon in a vast black cosmos, beguiling them on a cellular level, getting smaller by the minute. Forty years later the journey that lives most intensely for them was more about leaving the Earth than going to the moon.