On Dec. 7, 1972, one of the astronauts on the Apollo 17 spacecraft snapped a photo of the earth out of a window in the cramped cabin. The photo, dubbed “The Blue Marble,” made the world catch its breath.
It was really the first time the residents of Earth had ever seen a full-on portrait of where they lived.
The sun was behind the photographer’s back, and Earth poised, lit as though from within, hanging in the star-flecked black, a mere 28,000 miles away.
There it was. Not just a pretty bright thing hanging in the sky, not a scientific exhibit, an object of study. Home. Home to every one of us, home to the dust of our ancestors, and the raw material of our descendants. Home to squabbling billions of putatively sentient beings of every imaginable political stripe and religious belief.
The photo – there were actually four taken at that particular time – became an emblem of the environmental movement. It is easy to see why. For the first time we could see home in its full form and palette of colors, from tawny browns to living greens, from oceanic blues and blinding white clouds swirled across the planet’s face, all proof of the complex machinery of sun, air and water.
And, get this: That was the last time that human beings were on a lunar mission. Every other lunar mission since then has been performed by robots. Nobody has been out that far since 1972.
Something else to think about: Look at that photo – it’s easily googled or binged or yahooed – and think that in only 39 years, the population of humans on that beautiful little globe has almost doubled, from about 3.9 billion to 7 billion. That’s just our species, of course. It does not take a deep grasp of mathematics to know what the growth figures for humans mean for any other species. Well, one can suppose that e. coli and other microbes are doing well.
But look at that green. We can’t do this now, because we don’t really have a space program any more, (We travel to the International Space Station in a Russian shuttle, at $63 million per seat, and our astronauts have to learn to speak Russian. And you thought we WON the space race!) But I would be happy to bet that if some modern-day astronaut could snap that photo again, a computer analysis would show less green, more brown, and a lot more space paved and glittering with artificial light. The wild spaces are shrinking. Maybe that’s one reason we don’t send people with cameras that far any more. Maybe we just don’t want to see what a mess we’ve made.
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