Today guest blogger Anthony Shaw discusses visual representations of Earth from space. These types of images inspire and celebrates not only the beauty of the world but the unity between us and the environment.
How do you internalize visuals from space?
What influence does this have on your understanding of the world?
On May 13, 2013, a Russian Soyuz space capsule safely landed on the flat Kazakhstan steppe carrying three astronauts back to Earth from the International Space Station. Among the returning astronauts was Col. Chris Hadfield who served as commander of ISS Expedition 35, managed to raise the profile of spaceflight among Canadians and other Twitterverse residents by utilizing his Twitter feed to post a series of breathtaking photos from space.
It is difficult for me to discern the personal impact these images have had on me. I grew up with “Blue Marble” and “Earthrise,” and these images always seemed to be around, although they were often in the background, posted on the wall of the school classroom of my memory.
Hadfield’s use of social media captivated almost one million of us stuck on the ground. During his time on the ISS, Hadfield became the most recent space explorer to discover not some new planet or an unseen comet – but instead, he rediscovered the earth.
In the video below Hadfield talks about taking photos during spaceflight.
Before the space age, discovering the earth was the purview of philosophers and artists. In his book Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth, historian Robert Poole recounts historical visualizations of the entire globe starting with the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and working backwards into Roman times.
Below is a clip from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. This clip clearly illustrates our fascination with the moon and our place in the solar system.
However, visual representations of the entire earth did not capture imaginations on a worldwide scale until after the Apollo 8 mission to the moon in December 1968.
During the Apollo 8 mission, astronaut Frank Borman snapped the iconic and stunning “Earthrise” photograph, which was reproduced for a worldwide audience in January the 1969 editions of Time and Life.  This amazing photograph, while not technically the first photo of the earth from a lunar perspective, was nevertheless the first to capture the attention of a worldwide audience.
Seeing the earth in its cosmic context, surrounded by the vacuum of space, has evoked different reactions from different people.
Frank White’s 1982 book The Overview Effect describes the impact of earth viewing on astronauts. White notes that the strongest impact was on the astronauts of the Apollo program, who were the first people in history to see the entire planet at the same time. As Poole notes in his book, the “Earthrise” and “Blue Marble” photos have also had an appreciable impact on those of us with who have never floated in zero gravity. They became icons, in a quasi-religious sense, for the environmental movement writ large, reminding us of the irrefutable fact that all that protects our planet from the interstellar vacuum is a wispy envelope of air that keeps us alive.
This captivating short documentary about the Overview Effect includes interviews with five astronauts who have a familiarity the Overview Effect. The film also discusses the relationship between The Overview Effect and the relationship to the environment.
Granted, Hadfield’s ISS photography did not capture the entire planet like “Earthrise” and “Blue Marble.” The ISS orbits much too closely to the earth for a resident to be able to frame the entire sphere. Like the Apollo crew, astronauts who have viewed our planet from low-earth orbit also experienced some type of shift in perspective. And unlike the Apollo images, which at first appeared only in magazines, the significance of Hadfield’s photography lies in the portability of its digital medium, which has democratized the reproduction of his images.
Hadfield’s photos capture the breathing motions of the atmosphere in particularly graceful poses. His imagery portrays the natural environment in a way that impersonal, scientific satellite imagery cannot – as comforting, as inviting, as home.
It is difficult for me to discern the personal impact these images have had on me. I grew up with “Blue Marble” and “Earthrise,” and these images always seemed to be around, although they were often in the background, posted on the wall of the school classroom of my memory. Moreover, my father worked in the Southern California aerospace industry, welding metal parts for commercial Delta rockets. As a youth, I was therefore exposed to two facets of space exploration the “cool” side, embodied by the glory of rocketry; and a more philosophical side stimulated by the questions these photographs compel us to ask.
The most significant effect that “Earthrise” has had on me personally has been to compel me to maintain perspective on what it is that we do with our lives. Are we helping or hurting the Earth? Doing good or doing harm? Each of us must answer these questions for ourselves. For me, these photographs are constant reminders that we should keep our priorities in perspective and appraise our actions in a way that promotes those deeds which do the greatest good in the long run.
What do you think?
How do the “Earthrise” and “Blue Marble” images strike you?
How have photos of the Earth from space informed your perspective?
Do you think photographs of the whole earth have had any effect on the way people think about the environment, politics, or culture?
 Poole, 7-8.
 Poole, photographic insert caption to “Blue Marble.”
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