Earth Day, which brings awareness and encourages support for environmental causes, was recognized and celebrated for the first time in 1970. There were many different events that took place in the preceding years that led to the formation of this special annual event. There was the publication of the 1962 bestselling environmental conservation book Silent Spring, that brought attention to the health hazards of pesticides and other chemicals. And then there were two separate 1969 environmental disasters. One was an offshore oil drilling spill that was only 6 miles away from the coast of Santa Barbara and the second was the catching on fire of Cleveland’s polluted and oil slicked Cuyahoga River.
There was another event that had an impact on Earth day’s creation. But this one was much more upbeat. It was the taking of a single photograph from outer space of planet Earth. This image caused many to stop and think about their shared planet. Because there have been many recorded images of Earth taken over the years, we take for granted just how awe inspiring the early photographs must have been to the people who saw them for the first time. The above photograph, known as Earthrise, is now over half a century old. It was taken by astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 as his Apollo 8 spacecraft rounded the dark side of the moon for a fourth time. This was not the first picture taken of Earth from outer space. There were about 14 others taken by both American and Soviet rockets or satellites before the Apollo 8 mission. But Earthrise was unique in that it was the first color photograph taken by a human being from space and it captures the surface of the moon in the forefront and a rising planet Earth in the background.
Apollo 8 splashed down onto the Pacific Ocean a few days later on December 27th. NASA had Anders’ film quickly developed and released to the public. Papers like The New York Times and Washington Post published the photo on their cover pages. The readers were amazed. But those news organizations only used black and white photography in 1968. It was not until color magazines published the photo, with Life Magazine doing a double page spread of Earthrise, did it capture the public’s imagination and begin its journey to the iconic image that it is today.
One of those individuals, who was mesmerized by this picture of a blue and white vision of Earth hovering beyond the moon’s gray lunar surface, was Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, an American counterculture and product journal. Brand published the Earthrise photo on the Spring 1969 edition of the magazine’s cover. Brand had been looking for an image such as this, one that could galvanize the country and touch off a movement. Brand was one of a group of environmental activists who felt that an image of “Spaceship Earth” would bring us all together as the people of one planet. Brand and Whole Earth Catalog, with its large readership, helped speed up the American environmental movement by bringing together a new community of environmental thinkers and advocates, who invented what came to be known as "sustainability" and were part of the buildup to the Earth Day creation.
Anders himself admits that the mission of Apollo 8 was to research the moon but that it became something else. “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth,” he told the Guardian Magazine in 2020. He went on to say, “People realized that we lived on this fragile planet and that we needed to take care of it”.
The first Earth Day was held some 16 months after Anders snapped his now famous photo. And today the image endures as a uniting symbol.
So, this Earth Day, maybe share this photo and its history with friends and family. Your loved ones can learn a little bit about Bill Anders and his Apollo 8 mission. And maybe it can help bring back that sense of universal awe that captivated so many people a half century ago and be reminded of just how small and delicate our own blue planet actually is.
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