Last month marks the 40th anniversary of “The Blue Marble,” the first-ever image of Earth from space and one of the most widely distributed photographs in history. We asked our friend William L. Fox, a writer who’s thought a lot about what it means for humans to see themselves from a distance, about the enduring importance of the image, four decades after its creation.
The aerial imagination has been creating two-dimensional images of the ground as seen from above for at least 8,000 years. That’s the approximate age of a mural unearthed at Çatalhöyük, Turkey, which shows the Neolithic village from an aerial perspective—the first-known such representation of the Earth from above. In 1967, geographer James Blaut and psychologist Meca Sorrentini-Blaut discovered that humans have an innate ability to imagine their environment from any number of angles, the aerial among them, and the image from Turkey was a strong confirmation of their work. Leonardo da Vinci’s wonderful aerial maps of Imola are another famous example of pre-flight aerial views, as are the subsequent God’s-eye views made by European and American atlas makers from the 1700s through the time of the Wright Brothers.
In a sense, flight and the views it affords are confirmation of what we already know of the world around us. To encounter our houses or cities from above, via imagination or in-person, lets us more clearly understand where we are as individuals, as families, as a society. But to see an actual image of the entire planet from above—Earth as opposed to earth—is another matter entirely, as it places our planet in the context of space, and thus defines the limits of where we live. And now that we understand where we are—where we all are—it’s possible to think globally.
Three images are critical to our sense of Earth as a place in space, a place we know as a single planet. The earliest one is a photograph taken by Bill Anders during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968. Apollo 8 was the first orbit of humans around the Moon, and it afforded the astronauts an opportunity to witness, in-person, an Earthrise. The juxtaposition of the blue and obviously alive planet above the dead gray surface of the Moon was a tremendous moment for the public in terms of our fragile existence.
The second image, made in 1972, is the “Blue Marble”—the most widely reproduced image in the history of the world. It was made from 28,000 miles away during the final Apollo mission, and was labeled instantly as the definitively modern God’s-eye view of the Earth. Sadly, it is an image impossible to take again, as no humans since that mission have been in orbit higher than the International Space Station, which, at only 220 miles above the Earth, is far too close to capture the planet in a single frame.
The third image is the most distant aerial view of our planet, taken remotely in 1990 by the Voyager spacecraft from more than 4 billion miles away. This “Pale Blue Dot” picture shows our planet as almost invisible among the stars in the background: the marble, which in the original photograph is only 0.12 pixels in size, is on the verge of being lost to our vision. Today we no longer have the ability to see our entire home from space at any distance—a loss we can’t afford for long, and which is akin to losing our view of the night sky.
William L. Fox is the director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada. The author of numerous nonfiction books, his work is a sustained inquiry into how human cognition transforms land into landscape.