Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Most Famous Photograph of All

Above - the official Apollo 17 insignia (Image courtesy of NASA - click to enlarge)

"The world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whosoever will think of it". - Thomas Carlyle, Scottish essayist and historian.

The Apollo 17 Space Mission blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre in the early hours of December 7, 1972, bound for the Moon. The Mission was to be one of the most successful of all time, setting numerous records along the way, including the longest manned lunar landing flight, the longest time in lunar orbit, the longest lunar excursions (using the Lunar Rover vehicle) and the biggest payload of "Moonrock" ever collected. It was to be the last time that man walked on the Moon in the twentieth century.

Despite all these mighty achievements, the Mission is probably best remembered for something else, something much smaller, but destined to become one of the iconic products from all of human spaceflight history.

After a little more than 5 hours into the Mission, Apollo had left parking orbit around the Earth and was on track for the Moon. The fully illuminated disc of the Earth appeared in stunning beauty through the window of the spacecraft, amazing the flight crew of Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Jack Schmitt. It appeared to them as an intricate blue and white glass marble suspended in the black emptiness of space around.

The Apollo 17 crew: from left to right Jack Schmitt, Eugene Cernan (seated) and Ronald Evans. (Courtesy of NASA - click to enlarge)

They were equipped with a 70 mm Hasselblad Camera with an 80 mm lens, and Jack Schmitt pointed this through the window and snapped away. The result was possibly the most famous photograph ever taken, an image that is believed to be the most widely distributed in history.

It showed an entire hemisphere of the Earth bathed in brilliant sunlight - Africa and the Arabian peninsular are clearly visible, as well as various cloud patterns and the sparkling blue of the oceans. And, for the first time, the Antarctic ice cap was photographed from space.

Planet Earth, December 7 1972 (Image courtesy of NASA - click to enlarge)

Soon after returning to Earth, the image was disseminated to the public and became "front page" around the world. Scientists and meteorologists were amazed with the detail revealed and others just marvelled at the beauty of our planet. Here the cradle of life as we know it, from ancient times, to the dinosaurs, to early civilisations, with culture, art, warfare all playing out over the millennia, was laid before us in photographic form.

The image is credited with launching the environmental movement. Earth appears both beautiful but delicate, and many then realised that it was finite and cannot be exploited without limit.

Some of the main features of the image (Click to enlarge)

This photograph became known as "The Blue Marble" and despite the fact that it was taken many years ago, it has never lost its marvel and relevance.

On December 7 2012 it will be forty years since Jack Schmitt aimed his Hasselblad camera through the window and produced this timeless image. I've made a note in my diary so that I don't forget this important anniversary.

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