Behind the Blue Marble: The Story Behind the Iconic Image

The Blue Marble. Courtesy of NASA.

The Blue Marble. Courtesy of NASA.

Along the way to the moon on Dec. 7, 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 had a beautiful view of Earth that would give us one of the most popular photographs to come out of NASA. One of their objectives was to take photographs of the lunar surface for mapping and scientific purposes. They also needed a record of what they did both on the moon and in flight. Earth-gazing was not on the list of photographic activities, but that perfect view was too good to pass up.

julius motal the phoblographer hasselblad moon

Approximately five hours into the mission, the crew – Gene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt and Ron Evans – was 28,000 miles away from Earth. That distance offered a perfect view of our fully-illuminated home set against the blackness of space. With a modified Hasselblad 500EL, a Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2.8 lens and a fixed shutter speed of 1/250 sec. and no viewfinder, Dr. Harrison Schmitt, the Lunar Module Pilot, maintains that he captured the Blue Marble photograph.

Officially, NASA credits the entire crew for the image. An article from the Jan. 8, 1973 issue of TIME gives credit for the Blue Marble to Capt. Ron Evans, and Cernan has claimed that he took the image. Schmitt’s account differs.

“I was taking a broad series of photographs to document weather patterns,” said Schmitt over the phone.

Before joining NASA, he was an amateur meteorologist, and his personal project aboard Apollo 17 was to see if he could forecast the next day’s weather.

“There’s a pretty major hurricane,” said Schmitt of the cloud over India. Indian meteorological records confirm that there was a cyclone from Dec. 1 to Dec. 8 which claimed 80 lives and displaced 30,000 people.

|The lens modifications were done by Zeiss based on intense exchange with NASA. We still keep in our stocks kilograms of NASA papers.

Extreme conditions set space photography apart from more conventional, earthbound genres of photography. Cameras and lenses have to be able to operate in a vacuum and subzero temperatures. Hasselblad and Zeiss were two of the major companies that provided photographic equipment for the Apollo missions.

“The lens modifications were done by Zeiss based on intense exchange with NASA. We still keep in our stocks kilograms of NASA papers,” said Dr. Hubert Nasse, the senior scientist at Carl Zeiss AG in Oberkochen, Germany, in an email interview.

|Getting the light was always a challenge.

The Hasselblad 500EL was modified in-house so that it could both function in space and so that astronauts with relatively inflexible gloves could operate it. The space-ready 500EL was a point-and-shoot in its own right because it didn’t have a viewfinder. Hasselblad didn’t provide all of the cameras, but the Blue Marble was taken with the 500EL and a Zeiss lens.

“Getting the light was always a challenge,” said Schmitt.

The most the astronauts could do with the camera was switch out the film and adjust the aperture. Schmitt said that the camera’s shutter speed was fixed at 1/250 sec. With the earth 28,000 miles away, the focusing distance on the lens is set to infinity.

Schmitt said that he felt a great deal of relief upon seeing that the images came out as well as he did. Given his meteorological focus, he didn’t anticipate that any of the photographs would go on to receive critical acclaim.

NASA’s archival designation for it is AS17-148-22727, and the original image was taken upside down with the South Pole at the top. In its myriad reproductions, it’s flipped up to match what we would normally expect to see. What sets the Blue Marble apart is that is the first full-Earth image taken from space, and its resonance is still felt today.

Colonel Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who spent five months aboard the International Space Station earlier this year, holds the image in high regard.

Of its importance, he said in an email that it inspired in him “an undeniable, irrevocable sense of oneness, of us all being connected, and a desire to look more closely with that renewed perspective.”

Cernan did not return a request for commentary.

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