Earthrise, and the rise of “spaceship earth”

Planetary images from other worlds featured in the TV documentary shown in the UK this week to mark Voyager’s departure from the solar system. The image of the Earth is still the most evocative one, though. Here’s a look at its history which also came to mind while thinking about the new research programme Future Earth, which is consolidating earth system science and even exploring areas like earth system governance. Would either of those have happened without the pictures of Earth from space? Probably, but arguably not in the same way…

Before you read on, try this. Google “Kaguya image gallery” and click on HDTV. Watch the movie of the small, blue Earth rising above the curved horizon of the grey, lifeless moon. Evocative, no?

[That worked in 2008, but you can watch the same thing from YouTube now]

That little movie, taken from a Japanese orbiting moon mission earlier this year, is the nearest the earthbound can get to reliving the experience of three Apollo astronauts on Christmas Eve 1968. Borman, Lovell and Anders, former test pilots, filled to the brim with the right stuff, went the full distance to the moon but their mission was all orbit, no touch down. As each orbit took them behind the satellite, they lost contact. For mission control, re-emerging meant renewing the radio link. For the crew, it meant something else: Earthrise.

They took no movies, but did snatch still photos through the window of their capsule. Those were not the first photos of the whole earth. But they were the first to reproduce a view seen by human eyes. They also capture the moment when the space programme turned around. It was framed as outward bound, a journey toward an endless frontier; it became about the Earth.

So argues Robert Poole in his absorbing little book. It was ripe for the writing. Forty years after the peak of interest in the moon landings, reappraisals of the space race are in vogue. Marina Benjamin’s Rocket Dreams reviews the mixed legacy of the space programme. Andrew Smith in Moondust probed what Apollo meant to him by tracking down the nine surviving moonwalkers. And David Sington’s remarkable documentary In the Shadow of the Moon weaves new astronaut interviews together with footage from NASA’s rich archives to stunning effect. Now Poole takes up the acquisition and use of the images which may be the most important fruits of the whole enterprise.

To anyone who grew up with real colour photos of the whole earth, they are an irresistible subject for an essay on the power of the image. That blue-green globe suspended in the dark is one thing we remember from our tiny excursions into space. Humans visited another world and found it bleaker than they ever imagined. Even in colour, the moon is black and white. Hanging above it – from a Lunar vantage point – the Earth is a riot of colour. It shimmers and sparkles. It seems alive.

Or does it? The simple version of the significance of Earthpix has become a cliché. We went to the moon. We saw the earth, and that it was good. And so modern environmentalism was born. Earthrise begat Earth Day.

Like most clichés, there is some truth here. The image surely is evocative. Apart from a few astronauts, no-one has seen it with their own eyes. For the rest of us, it has become as familiar as our own faces in the mirror. The best-known NASA photo, taken from Apollo 17 in 1972, is the single most reproduced image in human history, Poole reports.

But although the packaging of his book, and the details he narrates, lean toward this simple cause and effect sequence, Poole is too good a historian not to undercut it – though he only does so partially.

The straightforward portion of the book relates how the photos came to be taken. The events are recent, and it is easy to reconstruct how images of the Earth gradually became a small, but lasting, part of NASA’s mission. It was an uphill battle because, as Poole highlights, the space programme was shot through with the rhetoric of “astrofuturism”.

It was time, as science-fiction writers and visionary technologists argued, for the human species to reach beyond the cradle of the Earth and set out for the stars. The moon was to be a small step on an endless outward journey. Instead, it produced a new appreciation of the comforts of home. When the crew of Apollo 13 limped back to Earth after an explosion damaged their craft, the drama was as memorable as Apollo 11’s first lunar touchdown. And the images of the blue planet underlined the hostility of, well, everywhere else.

But is the story a picture tells inscribed within the picture? Or is the way an image is read learnt, its interpretation made, not revealed? That is now the more common view. Some images, though, seem to resist that analysis. As Marina Benjamin put it, “It was difficult not to imbue the planet with exemplariness”. Difficult, but not impossible – and when an image seems so obviously powerful effort is needed to trace the roots of that power. An Earthscape, like a landscape, does not encode an immutable message. Mountains, for instance were not always emblems of ragged beauty, snow-capped peaks sending the heart soaring as high as their icy summits. Before the aesthetic of the sublime gained currency in the 18th century they were generally viewed as hostile, as ugly excrescences which emphasised the imperfection of the earthly realm. History can account for the change

I imagine Poole would agree, but he never quite comes out and says so. Instead he leaves the two views in tension. The images, and their capture, dominate the book. But it also contains a history of how they were constructed in a particular way. The cultural slot they fitted into was being actively prepared before the pictures existed. It began with the reading from Genesis the astronauts chose to relay to Earth that Christmas Eve. Then there was an existing literary and artistic tradition of imagining how the planet would appear from space. This became overlaid with a new awareness of Earth as a finite, crowded, and precious voyager through an inhospitable universe. Buckminster Fuller popularised the term Spaceship Earth as part of a wondrously woolly manifesto for general systems thinking in 1963. The economist Kenneth Boulding made more incisive use of the same notion a couple of years later. Others taken with the idea included Stuart Brand, beguiled by ecology and spaceflight. By 1966 he was having badges printed asking why there was no picture of the whole Earth, and mailing them to NASA. When the agency finally obliged, with a satellite image originally intended to satisfy the curiosity of weather forecasters, Brand slapped it on the cover of his celebrated Whole Earth Catalogue.

Here, as elsewhere, the co-option of the Earthpix was part of a larger story, already unfolding. The same is true of Lovelock’s Gaia theory. As Poole relates, its originator was consulted about how to read signs of life on other planets. This led him to the key notion of planetary homeostasis some years before the key images were brought back. So although it owes its origins to the space programme, and the whole earth images helped its promotion, we would have had Gaia theory, and its development as Earth system science in any case.

In fact, other aspects of the various space programmes are probably more important here. Ever better earth observation satellites –  our new macroscopes – feeding mountains of data back to civilian scientists have fuelled the development of the new sciences of global systems and global change. Their ability to observe the whole earth by remote sensing brings much of the evidence that we now affect the environment on a global scale.

This is one possibility for a larger study of the effect of space observations of all kinds on late modern culture and consciousness. Another would be the Hubble Deep Field images showing the oldest galaxies, as widely circulated in the last five years as the whole Earth was in the 1970s. The way they are read is at least as interesting as the interpretation of those earlier images.

Still, the focus on the NASA photos of the Earth, plus a few from other space agencies, does unify the book. The result is a very readable and stimulating foray into an important facet of twentieth century history, if not the last word on the subject. (2008)

(Robert Poole, Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth, Yale University Press)

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