50 Years Since the Blue Marble: The Mystery Behind the Photographer and Its Impact on World History

The Blue Marble is the most iconic image of Earth ever taken in full. The shot first graced the planet on December 7, 1972, by a member of the Apollo 17 crew as they continued their voyage to the moon. Not only is it the first image of Earth, but it is also one of the most reproduced images in history and the only image of the planet taken by a person. However, crediting the image to its photographer is one of the Space Race’s many mysteries. After 50 years of circulation, we still do not know who took the photo.

Blue Marble, 1972, NASA

There are many circumstances that need to take place for such a shot to be possible. This particular picture is only achievable if taken 20,000 miles away from Earth. Only 24 people in all of world history met this criterion. In addition, most voyages that met this special spot usually only saw part of the earth due to shadows and daylight cycles. The image had to happen during a full moon cycle to see as much of the planet as possible. 

Of the 24 people that ended up remotely close to 20,000 miles away from Earth, only three had the opportunity to see the planet so that a single photograph could capture weather patterns, continents, and even the South Pole for the first time ever. Those people are Commander Eugene Cernan, lunar module pilot Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, and command module pilot Ron Evans. Of the three, only Evans did not step foot on the moon’s surface. 

Also of the three, Schmitt is the only one still alive. Evans died in 1990 and Cernan in 2015. Schmitt told Outside Magazine, “How honored and privileged I feel to have participated in Apollo and to have the chance to take this picture that so many people find pleasing” in 2022. Before their passing, Cernan and Evans also claimed to be the photographer of the Blue Marble. 

Since everyone claims to have taken the photo, how does NASA credit the photographer? Well, NASA takes the credit. The organization does not credit individual photographers unless that person is unmistakably the one behind the camera. So if two out of three astronauts were within frame for a picture, for example, it is understood that the other person is the one who took the photo. These are some of the only circumstances where NASA will credit an astronaut for an image. 

In a way, no individual credit for such an iconic image speaks for more the message it delivers. The Blue Marble became a symbol for environmental activists worldwide to preserve and protect the planet that gives us life. From 20,000 miles away, peace and environmental restoration appeared more achievable—we could finally associate this cause with the face of the Earth. While the US went two Earth Day celebrations without this image, it would become the face of the event for 50 years to come. 

Apollo 14 liftoff, NASA

Regardless of accreditation, images like the Blue Marble remain as public domain—there is no fee or permit needed for Americans to have access images and readings from our planet. This allows all US citizens to use accurate remote sensing data to plan crop cycles, analyze weather patterns, and even keep tabs on floods and droughts around the world. And while the data is cool, the images are understood by all. Satellite images of our planet exemplify unity amongst people; at 20,000 miles away, those national borders shrink, and the chaos of world events fades into amber continental hues. 

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