You’ve probably seen the image above many times: it is, after all, said to be the most widely reproduced image in history. However, you may not be aware that it was taken during the Apollo 17 mission, NASA’s last lunar landing mission, that came to a successful conclusion 40 years ago today.
Apollo 17 was a mission of superlatives. In addition to being the only Apollo mission to include a scientist astronaut in its crew (geologist Dr. Harrison Schmitt), Apollo 17 saw the first night launch in the Apollo program. It was also the longest Apollo mission (just over 12 and a half days), with the crew spending the longest time on the Moon (3 days). In 22 hours of Extravehicular Activity (another record), the crew covered over 35km and collected the largest haul of lunar rock and soil samples (110kg), while mission commander Gene Cernan set a lunar speed record of 18km/h in the crew’s Lunar Roving Vehicle.
Although Apollo 17 was the last lunar landing mission in the Apollo program, its crew actually saw it as a flight that would close one chapter of space exploration and open another-a “golden age” of exploration that would return to the Moon and continue on to the planets in the solar system and beyond. They sought to capture this idea in the mission patch that they developed in conjunction with noted illustrator and artist Robert McCall (1919-2010). In addition to the patriotic imagery of a stylised American eagle and an allusion to the Stars and Stripes, the patch depicts Apollo, the god of wisdom and knowledge, in the form of the head of the famous Apollo Belvedere sculpture, looking towards a gold-coloured Moon (representing the future “golden age”), with the planet Saturn and a galaxy in the background. This allegorical mission patch was featured on many souvenirs of the Apollo 17 flight, of which several can be found in the A.E. and V.I. Crome Collection.
Despite the hopeful vision espoused in the Apollo 17 mission patch, that flight remains to this day, the last human voyage to the Moon-in fact, the last crewed journey beyond Earth orbit. Changing political priorities and a lack of political will to expend funds on ambitious and expensive human missions to the Moon, Mars or beyond, have so far meant that the legacy the Apollo 17 crew hoped to leave has yet to be fulfilled. Instead, Apollo 17 made a significant contribution to an unexpected legacy of the Apollo program, the growth of the environmental movement.
Although the environmental movement began long before the first Apollo mission was launched, the images of the whole Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts, showing the beauty and fragility of our planet completely isolated in the blackness of space, helped to imbed into the public consciousness the idea that Humanity really was living on a “Spaceship Earth” (a term coined by futurist Buckminster Fuller in 1963): a world that-just like a spaceship-had finite resources that needed to be carefully husbanded to enable the crew to survive (an analogy that would be particularly well-demonstrated in the Apollo 13 mission). This term was given profound visualisation with the magnificent “Earthrise” image captured by Apollo 8 at Christmas 1968. William Anders, the astronaut who took this photograph, would later express how much it inspired him and the world: “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered Earth.” Images from Apollo 8, 10 and 11 were quickly adopted by environmental and peace activists, such as Stewart Brand (publisher of the Whole Earth Catalogue) and John McConnell, the founder of Earth Day.
As Apollo 17 sped towards the Moon in December 1972, Harrison Schmitt, the only geologist to explore the lunar surface in person, captured another iconic image of the whole Earth, with a relatively cloud-free view stretching from Antarctica to the Middle East. Although the image is usually presented as you see it at the beginning of this blog post, with North at the top, the Apollo 17 crew’s view was, in fact, “upside down”, with South and Antarctica at the top of picture. However, such is the cultural influence of the northern hemisphere that NASA unhesitatingly released the image to the public rotated to place North at the top, just as the Apollo 8 Earthrise image was rotated to provide a more culturally conventional horizontal lunar surface.
Nicknamed the “Blue Marble”, due to its brilliant blue and white colours, for the past forty years, this image has been adopted as a symbol by environmental groups, peace groups, NGOs, space activists and a range of other causes. I’ve seen it displayed behind the heads of newsreaders as a generic image for a wide range of stories, used in advertising, illustrated on book covers and in comics, displayed on postcards and posters for bedroom walls. As I noted at the beginning of this blog, it is aid to be the most widely reproduced image ever and if you look for it, you’ll be surprised at the places this picture pops up.
Many supporters of space exploration lament the fact that Apollo 17 still remains the last mission to the Moon, but its legacy lives on in the countless millions around the world who have been touched and inspired by the vision of the “Blue Marble”.