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Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth

Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth

by Robert Poole
Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, and London, 2008; 2010
236 pp., illus. 16 b/w. Cloth, $ 26.00; paper, $18.00
ISBN13: 978-03-001-3766-8; ISBN13: 978-03-001-6403-9.

Reviewed by Stephen Petersen

Earthrise has a simple thesis with profound consequences: What the Apollo astronauts discovered when they got to the Moon was, in fact, the planet Earth as they saw it from afar. Their photographs of the Earth in space transformed humanity’s idea of itself and of its home planet. No longer was the whole Earth a projection or an abstraction; human eyes had seen it, a sight epitomized in a handful of widely reproduced images that are here put into cultural context.

The author is a historian of early modern England who by his own admission is stepping "outside" his "accustomed fields." The result is a refreshingly wide-ranging history with a perhaps unlikely focus, namely the link between the Apollo space project and the back-to-nature counterculture that blossomed in the very same years. Calling itself "an alternative history of the space age," this book resists the typically triumphalist narrative of spatial conquest (as well as the dismissive view, often from the Left, of space exploration as an expensive, technocratic folly) in favor of a nuanced exploration of the rhetoric and imagery that accompanied the Apollo project. Focusing on the brief era of extra-orbital manned flight from1968 to 1972, Poole maintains it is no coincidence that these years saw the emergence of the modern environmental movement. The defining moment of the book (and the author argues, of the U.S. space program and indeed of the entire twentieth century) is not Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission but rather the vision from the Apollo 8 Lunar Orbiter, some months before, of the Earth appearing from behind the lunar horizon. Shrouded in a religious aura (it happened on Christmas Eve 1968), the image of "Earthrise" was, ironically, a nod to pre-Copernican thought. Earth was, once again, the center of the universe.

Recounting the conflicting views of astrofuturists, who believed the destiny of humanity was in space, and environmentalists, who saw outer space as a flight from earthly concerns, Poole steps back to show the connection between the two. In its sequence of photographs of the whole Earth, Apollo (along with other NASA projects) effectively provided an imagery for the environmental movement. Moreover, an impetus for the first photographs of Earth from space seems to have come from countercultural figure Stuart Brand, who in 1967 demanded to know, in a public relations effort, "Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?" (a notion he had while tripping on LSD and perceiving the Earth’s subtly bulging horizon from a San Francisco rooftop). In turn, the first color whole-Earth image, taken by satellite ATS-III in 1968, would adorn the cover of Brand’s inaugural Whole Earth Catalogue, known to some as the bible of the counterculture.

Brand was a follower of Buckminster Fuller, whose notion of "Spaceship Earth" as a self-contained system informed ecological awareness (the first Earth Day flag bore an image of Earth from space). In the wake of the Earthrise photograph, however, the technological metaphor of Spaceship Earth was superceded by James Lovelock’s "Gaia" – Earth as a living organism – which would find its ideal representation in the Apollo 17 "Blue Marble" photograph of 1972. This widely reproduced image from the last Apollo mission was, writes Poole, "an abstract composition in blue and white [,,,] more like an impressionist painting, with […] the deeper mysteries of nature displayed in a hypnotic blob of color" (p. 95). An image of a living Earth leads directly to the global warming science and politics of today.

As a historian who is dealing principally with images, Poole perhaps wisely steers clear of contemporary photographic theory. But he clearly describes the different photographic techniques and attends to the photographs’ multiple channels of transmission. The book gives a vivid sense of how the particular images were made, how they were disseminated, and how they were received. It recreates the circumstances for the taking of specific photographs, connecting them to their "authors" in interesting ways. An unsung hero in the largely unknown photographic history recounted by Poole is Richard Underwood, Apollo director of photography. Underwood encouraged and provided detailed logistical support for the particular views that were ultimately produced. Even though the Apollo astronauts were not always encouraged to (or scheduled to) look at the Earth or photograph it, they managed to do so anyway. On their return, they spoke most passionately of the effect not of space or the lunar landscape, but of the view back to Earth. Especially affected was Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who would become involved with the emerging New Age spirituality and planetary consciousness movements of the 1970s, providing perhaps the most direct link between NASA and the counterculture.

If, as Poole suggests, the astrofuturists now appear to have jumped the gun, given the finite span of the Apollo project and the uncertain prospects for out-of-orbit space travel in the near future, the unique challenge of maintaining our Earth’s biosphere looms ever larger. The very notion of an Earth at risk derives from—and adds a poignant coda to—the whole Earth awareness of the Apollo era.

Last Updated 1 June, 2010

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