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Reflecting on Earthrise

The Earthrise photograph. Credit: NASA

Bruce Clarke is the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, as well as Paul Whitfield Horn Professor of Literature and Science at Texas Tech University.

On April 23, Clarke will host a discussion titled Earthrise: Celebrating the Photograph that Changed (How We View) the World at 4pm in room LJ-119 at the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson Building. Free tickets are available here.

In anticipation of this event, I asked him a few questions about the Earthrise photograph and its meaning.

First, in brief, how did the Earthrise photograph change the world, or how we look at the world?

The Earthrise photograph made a range of new observations of our planet’s cosmic station ready for the taking.

To be historically accurate, the Earthrise photograph was neither the first image of Earth seen from space, nor was it the very first to include a non-terrestrial object. The Soviet space program had previously recorded a similar but grainy black-and-white Earthrise-style videograph.

However, what we have named the Earthrise photograph is the best of a series of images taken on color film with a professional-grade camera and then developed and transmitted to media outlets once the Apollo 8 mission returned home. No finer image of the Earth from space had ever been captured, and it was the first such image to enjoy universal distribution.

Now, one thing that Earthrise changed was the way we have come to think about our planet: not as detached from, but as bound up with the rest of the universe. Its gorgeous tableau introduced an entirely new perspective by framing the Earth in relation to its lunar neighbor. Other Earth-from-space images of that moment could suggest that our planet just floats in space free of any attachments.

By showing an Earth and Moon that are gravitationally tethered, Earthrise immediately places our planet in relation to the solar system and the wider cosmos around us. At the same time, as has often been noted, Earthrise makes starkly clear the difference between a lifeless and a living world. These reflections are just some of the implications that would gradually unfold from the contemplation of Earthrise.

What perspectives will the other participants at the event bring to the discussion of the photo?

Attendees of Earthrise Day will enjoy exposure to a broad spectrum of approaches to the Earthrise photograph, its place in multiple histories, and an array of its cultural significances.

Cosmographer David McConville will investigate the paradoxes of paradigm shifts by placing Earthrise against the longer backdrop of Copernicus’s diagram of the heliocentric solar system.

Art historian Anne Collins Goodyear will explore how Earthrise both reflected and inspired artistic responses to space exploration and the space age and helped to underscore the creative significance of technological achievement.

Cultural historian Neil Maher will discuss the influence of Earthrise on the environmental movement, while explaining how that relation was not as direct or straightforward as is often thought.

Curator at the National Air and Space Museum Margaret A. Weitekamp will discuss the role of Earthrise in the process by which, by sending men to the Moon, we actually discovered the Earth.

And Jon Eaker with the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress will set up a lively display of artifacts that both anticipate and reflect the cultural preformations and repercussions of the Earthrise photograph.

What do you see as the relationship between astrobiology and the Earthrise photo?

Traditional biology does not consider life as a cosmological phenomenon. Rather, as the study of life per se, biology approaches living beings as denizens of a home planet whose fitness for life we have always taken for granted. However, as the scientific study of life in the context of the universe at large, astrobiology supplements the Earth-bound purview of traditional biology by factoring in the phases of cosmic preparation for the very possibility of life as we find it here on Earth and the implications of life as we know it for the search for life elsewhere is the cosmos.

The Earthrise photograph came into being as a spinoff of the Apollo missions. For obvious reasons, these dramatic and spectacular manned missions were the most public face of the American space program. NASA’s Apollo program was not about finding life, precisely, but about engineering a successful Moon landing.

However, right next door, so to speak, NASA was also promoting an interdisciplinary set of space sciences under the name of exobiology and making life-detection a primary aim of its concurrent development of unmanned Mars landers.

By contrast with the barren surface of the Moon, the Earthrise photograph underscored our inhabitation of a living planet with dazzling blue seas and swirling white clouds. So Earthrise proclaimed to its viewer that the object of astrobiology, life in the universe, starts right here with life on Earth.

What do you see as the relationship between the Earthrise photo and the American counterculture?

When Apollo 8 brought back a strip of Earthrise photographs, a seminal countercultural publication called the Whole Earth Catalog placed the most gorgeous of these on the front and back covers of its Spring 1969 issue. Here was a home planet newly visible in its own right and newly imaginable as a global ecosystem.

More broadly, the Catalog conveyed a uniquely wide selection and high level of information about systems of all kinds. Its every iteration contained a section on “Whole Systems” that reviewed developments and retailed information about cybernetics and system theory. The systemic vibrations and cybernetic fascinations abroad in this particular bastion of the American counterculture framed its uptake of NASA’s Earthrise photograph as an icon of the “whole earth” seen in its unity rather than riven by its human divisions.

Earthrise: Celebrating the Photograph that Changed (How We View) the World takes place at 4pm in room LJ-119 at the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson Building. Free tickets are available here.

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