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The impact of Apollo 8 on our planetary self-image

    The Apollo mission that history will remember is the eleventh: “One Small Step for man, one giant leap for Mankind”. But a more significant leap for humanity happened, in my opinion, in an earlier mission: Apollo 8, the first to leave Earth orbit in 1968 and go around our moon. It was from that mission that the astronauts brought back, for the first time, photographs like the one at the right. In it, floating serenely in a pitch-black sky, a small but vivid blue-white half-globe: the image we all associate with our home world.
    Now we do, that is. Until 1968, the Earth looked quite different; or at any rate, its inhabitants thought it did.
Apollo 8 photo of the Earth
    I got my first hint of this fact while looking at an old school copybook on display in a used book stall in the flea market of Palermo, Italy. It, too, shows the earth as seen from the moon. Behind the heroic astronaut on his nifty lunar roadster, framed against a blue (!) lunar sky, we see a huge, dominating orb, green continents outlined against a greenish-blue ocean, and not a cloud in its sky.
    Later it occurred to me to check my collection of old children’s books, and the same image kept showing up: a green/brown/light blue planet, its familiar continents perfectly visible under a cloudless sky. Sometimes a few clouds are thrown in, but they are small, fleecy parallel streaks, isolated and insignificant. The most prominent feature of the earth as seen from space was missing: the massive white swirls of the global cloud formations we see daily during the weather report. And the fact that the night side of the Earth is invisible against the black of space was also lost on those artists -- despite the very visible example of our own moon’s phases. They all drew the Earth as an oversized terrestrial globe!

Italian copybook cover
Click photo to enlarge

    Here, then, are some more examples of our planet as seen in pre-Apollo artist renditions from around the world:

Picture from "Exploring Space", 1958
From Exploring Space, a Little Golden Book, United States, 1958.

Picture from Tintin book, 1954
From The adventures of Tintin: Explorers on the moon, Europe, 1954.

Picture from "Exploring Space", 1958
From Exploring Space, a Little Golden Book, United States, 1958.

Picture from Tom Corbett's Wonder Book of Space, 1953  Picture from "The child's treasure", 1966
Left: from Tom Corbett's Wonder Book of Space, United States, 1953.
Right: from The child's treasure, Israel, 1966.

  Picture from "Space Flight", 1957     Picture from "Space Flight", 1957
From Space Flight, the Golden Library of Knowledge, United States, 1957.

    The Apollo 8 pictures set the record straight: no artist would ever draw a cloudless Earth again. But their true significance is that they suddenly put in perspective the fact that our seemingly endless, flat, solid world is not only round, not only far from being the center of the universe, but it is also small, vulnerable, outright improbable in this barren corner of a hostile universe. Even the continents that we so proudly inhabit are barely visible from space. Humanity, that self-styled "crown of creation",  was at last forced to feel a a little humility -- and an appreciation of how lucky we are to have this planet at all. The Apollo photographs had forced us to replace our age-old arrogance with the humbler mindset that was to become central to the environmentalist world view.
    Lastly, here (below, left) is the oldest picture in this batch: The Earth/Moon system, from “L'Enciclopedia dei Ragazzi”, an Italian children’s encyclopedia from around 1900 that I inherited from my grandmother. Once again it shows the large, cloudless Earth in much exaggerated continental relief.

Picture from "L'Enciclopedia dei Ragazzi", ca. 1900         Galileo spacecraft photo of the Earth/Moon system

    And to the right, the true image of this system, sent back by the Galileo spacecraft on December 22, 1992 (Apollo never went out far enough to capture both bodies at once). On the left, the moon, a lifeless ball of dead rock. And on the right, there, utterly unmistakable, our home. Unmistakable, because no human alive would fail to recognize the Earth by its rare hallmarks: a small blue planet, half shadow, half cloud swirls, embedded like a precious jewel in the black infinite void. Our fragile home world, the way it really is -– the way Apollo 8 taught us to see it.


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