Earthrise at 40: The accidental first snap-shot of our home planet

Apollo 8's enduring legacy (image courtesy NASA)

Earthrise: Apollo 8's enduring legacy (image courtesy NASA)

I can never have enough of this photo — the first ever snapshot of Earth.

This photo of “Earthrise” over the lunar horizon was taken by the Apollo 8 crew on Christmas eve 1968, showing Earth for the first time as it appears from deep space. It forever changed how humans look at – and feel about – their home planet.

And here’s the best part: this image was captured by accident! In all the meticulous planning for the Apollo 8 mission, no one had anticipated or thought about it. All attention was on the Moon itself, which humans would be viewing at such close range for the first time. None of the astronauts on board Apollo 8 – Mission Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders – were ready for the opportunity to witness their own Earthrise.

And if they had stuck to the mission plan, and not acted spontaneously, this image might never have been captured at the time it was.

Frozen in TIME...

Earth's photographers frozen in TIME...

As Apollo historian and film-maker Dr Christopher Riley recalled on the 40th anniversary of this remarkable event a few days ago:

For the first three orbits, preoccupied by the Moon and their latest TV broadcast, the spacecraft was not orientated to give them a chance to see the Earth. But as Apollo 8 nosed its way back from the far side of the Moon for the fourth time, one of the crew spotted the view by chance from a window, his reaction captured by the on board tape recorder.

“Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there!” he exclaimed. “Isn’t that something…”

After a quick joke about the fact that it was not in their flight plan to photograph it, the crew abandoned protocol and scrambled to get a snap of the occasion with their stills camera.

The Hasselblad only had a black and white film magazine in, resulting in the image (below) – the first photograph of Earthrise taken by a human as he watched it happen.

The first Earthrise ever photographed; a colour photograph followed minutes later

The first Earthrise ever photographed; a colour photograph followed minutes later

But this first historic picture is rarely reproduced. Not content with this first monochromatic image, the astronauts rushed to find a colour film, and Bill Anders managed to snap two more frames which became the choice of photo editors for the rest of history.

Read the rest of Christopher Rileyreminiscences on BBC Online.

Apollo 8 was an important prelude to actually landing on the Moon (which took place in July 1969). It achieved many firsts — including the first manned launch from NASA’s new Moonport, first manned mission to leave the earth’s gravitational field and reenter the earth’s atmosphere at tremendous speeds, first pictures taken by humans of the Earth from deep space, and first live TV coverage of the lunar surface. A Christmas Eve reading from the book of Genesis from Apollo 8 was heard by an estimated 2 billion people, the biggest TV audience in history.

Here are the highlights of that broadcast, also known as Apollo 8 Genesis reading:

And this is how BBC’s James Burke talked about it live on air with astronomer Patrick Moore:

Some might consider Apollo 8 as no more than a technological rehearsal to the eventual landing on the Moon, by astronauts of Apollo 11, but the images of Earthrise have had far-reaching implications. The rise of the global environmental movement in the 1970s was partly inspired by this new perspective of our planet. In his Oscar-award winning film An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore acknowledges this as he sets the stage with a series of images of Earth in space, helping us to appreciate the beauty and fragility of our planet in distress.

In an op ed essay to mark the 40th anniversary, Oliver Morton wrote in the New York Times on 24 December 2008: “The photograph of that earthrise by the astronaut Bill Anders forms part of the Apollo program’s enduring legacy — eclipsing, in many memories, any discoveries about the Moon or renewed sense of national pride. It and other pictures looking back at the Earth provided a new perspective on the thing that all humanity shares. As Robert Poole documents in his history, ‘Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth‘, that perspective had deep cultural effects, notably in the emotional resonance it offered the growing environmental movement. Seen from the Moon, the Earth seemed so small, so isolated, so terribly fragile.”

He goes on to argue that the planet is not as fragile or vulnerable as some suggest. But he ends with these words: ““Earthrise” showed us where we are, what we can do and what we share. It showed us who we are, together; the people of a tough, long-lasting world, shot through with the light of a continuous creation.”

The lessons of Earthrise images have been on other people’s minds as the anniversary passed. On his informative blog Dot Earth, New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin recently asked his readers to share what the Earthrise images meant to them. He has received a wide range of comments from people as diverse as former astronauts, scientists, school teachers and children.

Watch Jim Lovell & Apollo 8: Christmas Eve Heard Round the World – WGN (Chicago)’s producer Pam Grimes takes a look back at the 1968 Apollo mission through the eyes of astronaut Jim Lovell:

And here is how NASA Television looked back at their historic mission, 40 years later. In this video Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders recount man’s first voyage around the moon:

One final comment: The world is grateful to NASA, America’s space agency, for adopting from the early days of space exploration a far-sighted, public spirited policy that all its space images are made available free of copyrights to anyone, anywhere on the planet. This is what enables me to use space images on my blog – and keeps tens of thousands of such images in the public domain. Space agencies of other countries, also funded by tax-payer money, have been far less generous when it comes to sharing copyrights. The Heavens may be free, but some images of it are not.

Read my October 2007 blog post: No copyright on this planet – thank Heavens (and NASA) for that!

UNEP’s search for God: Here’s the way forward to save the planet!

Satinder Bindra

Satinder Bindra: Voice of the Planet?

“Content is king — but distribution is God!”

With these words, UNEP’s newly appointed Director of Communications and Public Information, Satinder Bindra (photo, above), engaged my attention at a meeting in Paris earlier this week.

I almost jumped up in total agreement — this is just what we’ve been saying for years, especially to those who support information, education and communication activities in UN agencies.

Unlike many career UN officials, Satinder knows what he’s talking about. He comes to UNEP with over two decades of wide and varied experience in journalism and broadcasting – the last 10 years spent as a Senior International Correspondent/South Asia Bureau Chief for CNN based in New Delhi, India.

In the hard headed and hard nosed world of international news and current affairs television, distribution and outreach can make or break any content provider. This is something that the two leading news channels BBC World and CNN International know very well — and the more recent entrant Al Jazeera English is still finding out.

Satinder’s remark, in this instance, was more to do with how to get information and analysis on sustainable development out to as many people as possible in all corners of the planet. This is part of UNEP’s core mission since its founding in 1972 — and as chief of communication and public information, Satinder now takes on this formidable challenge.

In Paris, he was listening, taking notes and talking to everyone in the small group who’d come together for the annual partner meeting of the Com Plus Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development.

Com+ is a “partnership of international organizations and communications professionals from diverse sectors committed to using communications to advance a vision of sustainable development that integrates its three pillars: economic, social and environmental”. TVE Asia Pacific was admitted to the partnership a few months ago.

As I’m sure Satinder realises, at stake in his new assignment is a lot more than audience ratings, market share or revenue stream of a single broadcaster. Those are important too, but not in the same league as ensuring life on Earth – in all its diversity and complexity – continues and thrives.

Satinder struck me as a practical and pragmatic journalist who wants to get the job done efficiently. We can only hope the rest of UNEP will keep up with him — or at least they don’t get too much in his way!

As he finds his way around the globally spread, multidisciplinary and sometimes heavily bureaucratic UN organisation, Satinder will come across some incongruities, cynicism and institutional inertia all of which have held UNEP back from being the dynamic global leader in our pursuit of elusive sustainable development.

At the big picture level, communication at UNEP has often been defined narrowly as institutional promotion – delivering UNEP logo to the news media of the world, or boosting the image of its executive director and other senior officials. We don’t grudge anyone enjoying their 15 minutes of fame, but a technical agency like UNEP has so much more to offer — in terms of rigorous science, multiple perspectives, wide ranging consultation and bringing diverse players to a common platform.

The Nobel Peace Prize winning Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), co-supported by UNEP and World Meteorological Organisation, is a good recent example of how solid science, communicated through the media, can inspire governments, industry and rest of society to find solutions to a major global challenge.

The 20-year success of the Montreal Protocol to save the ozone layer is another example. Again, UNEP was a key player in this accomplishment, and is still engaged in the race to phase out the use of a basket of chemicals that damage the protecting ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.

There’s a lot more good science and tons of good stories lurking inside UNEP — if only its experts know how to get these out, and if only its bean-counters won’t stand in the way.

Ironically, elsewhere in the same UNEP Paris building that we were having the Com Plus meeting, the adorable cartoon character Ozzy Ozone (below) was being holed up by excessive rules and regulations. He is one of the best known public communication products to come out of the organisation. Yet, as I wrote earlier this year, he is bottled up and kept captive by an unimaginative UN system.

Then there is the whole scandalous situation where UNEP-funded environmental films are released with needlessly excessive copyright restrictions. As I have been saying, this is the big mismatch in environment and development film-making: many films are made using donor (i.e. public or tax payer) funds, but due to the ignorance or indifference of funders, the copyrights are retained by private individuals or companies involved in the production.

In UNEP’s case, for years it has been commissioning (and sometimes funding) a London-based production company, with a charitable arm, to produce environmental films. That’s certainly a choice for UNEP if the agency feels it continues to get value for its money. But tragically, the producers jealously guard all the copyrights, releasing these only under rigid conditions to a select few.

Whatever outreach figures they might claim, these cannot match what the same films would achieve if the copyrights were not so restrictive. Freed from crushing rights, such environmental films – made with UNEP funding or blessings or both – could benefit thousands of groups engaged in awareness, advocacy, activism, education and training.

For sure, we’ve heard the arguments in favour of tight copyright regimes. Film-makers have every right to be acknowledged for their creative efforts, but public funded products must not be locked up by greedy lawyers and accountants — or even by selfish film-making charities. And millions of users around the world should be able to access such products without having to get through the eye of the copyright needle first.
July 2007 blog post: Lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree

Can Satinder Bindra overcome these hurdles that have for so long inhibited UNEP from reaching its potential? We just have to wait and see.

When he talks about distribution being God, we have to readily agree. But he will soon find some elements within UNEP – or in crony partnerships with UNEP – that stand between him and this God.

To be fair, there’s only so much that an inter-governmental agency like UNEP – beholden to its member governments – can really accomplish. That’s why it needs partners from corporate, civil society, activist and academic spheres. Some of us can easily say and do things that UNEP would, in all sincerity, like to — but cannot.

Satinder sounds like he can forge broad alliances that go beyond monopolist partnerships. Here’s wishing him every success….for everyone’s sake!

Photo courtesy UNEP Climate Neutral Network