The Earth, blue and luminous, seems to rise above the moon’s surface against the vast blackness of space in the now-iconic photo “Earthrise.” Taken on December 24, 1968, aboard Apollo 8 — the first crewed spacecraft to orbit the moon — the image almost immediately captured the world’s imagination. Since then, it has been credited with helping to spark the environmental movement and inspiring new frontiers in artistic expression.
On April 23, the Kluge Center hosted an event bringing together experts in art, history, and science to explore the legacy of the famous photo by NASA astronaut William Anders. Bruce Clarke, this year’s Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, organized and moderated “Earthrise Day: Celebrating the Photograph That Changed (How We View) the World.”
Watch the full video of the event here:
Clarke opened the discussion in by pointing out a basic fact about the photo that we may take for granted: its alignment. As “Earthrise” was originally taken, the moon’s horizon runs from top to bottom, which is not an angle readily found on planet Earth. Rotating the photo 90 degrees put the moon’s surface as the “ground” and framed the earth as “rising” above the horizon. “’Earthrise,’ then, has been invented as much as it’s been discovered and captured,” Clarke said.
“By sending men to the moon, we actually discovered the Earth,” Margaret Weitekamp of the National Air and Space Museum told the audience. She examined the history of humans’ attempts to describe ourselves in artifacts and physical messages transported into space. These range from a small silicon disk left by Apollo 11 on the moon’s surface to the “golden record” launched aboard Voyager spacecraft that is carrying recordings of music from human cultures beyond our solar system.
Taking on these projects of self-description, Weitekamp said, required people to begin thinking about the essential identity of humanity and how it might be conveyed to other living creatures who have no context for understanding us. More recently, she said, artifacts sent to space have tended toward providing a time capsule for humans to rediscover in the future, rather than anything meant to be intelligible to other forms of life.
Neil Maher, a professor of history, talked about the significance of “Earthrise” to the environmental movement. The photo often receives credit for showing the whole Earth from space for the first time, highlighting the fragility and importance of global ecosystems. But it wasn’t, in fact, the first photo of Earth from space, Maher said; moreover, it wasn’t until well after the photo was taken, in the 1980s, that “Earthrise” and similar images became important symbols of environmentalism.
David McConville, a media artist and educator, looked at the surprising parallels between Copernicus’s image of planets orbiting the Earth and “Earthrise.” He said both were major events that changed humans’ conception of their place in the universe and altered the foundations of science.
Anne Collins Goodyear of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art talked about interactions between the space program, the imagery it produced, and the art world. She showed the audience artistic depictions of space, some strikingly similar to “Earthrise,” made before the photo was taken that created a visual context for us to understand the real thing. “Anders’s impulse to give expression to something larger than himself through an image might easily be characterized as an artistic act,” she said.