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Science Wednesday: Earthrise – The Picture That Inspired the Environmental Movement

2009 July 1

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

I’ve never been terribly interested in space exploration. Though I do remember pictures Earth–our “big blue marble”–from my earliest childhood, I’ve been tempted to think on occasion, “What a waste of money. We have so many problems on Earth to solve.” What I didn’t realize was how those images have inspired me to think of the world as a global community.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn how the first picture of Earth taken from space inspired the environmental movement. I learned the connection while searching for a way to link Astronomy with EPA research for our Year of Science Web site.

The Apollo 8 astronauts were the first to go to far side of the Moon. They had prepared for every scenario except one: the awesome sight of Earth rising on a black lunar horizon. Discovering the scene from their space capsule, one astronaut exclaimed, “Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.” The crew scrambled for a camera. The photographs appeared for the first time in print just over 40 years ago, in January 1969.

photo of a half-earth rising in a black sky over the lunar horizon

The picture became known as “Earthrise” and the image of the world from the perspective of a desolate lunar surface became an iconic reminder of our need to protect the Earth’s fragile resources. Earthrise and images like it are widely credited with inspiring the environmental movement and indirectly the start of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. In Life’s 100 Photographs that Changed the World, wilderness photographer Galen Rowell called it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”
Earth seems so big and indestructible from our perspective, and so tiny and vulnerable when seen from space.

Learning this piece of history has given me new respect for the interconnectedness between different branches of science. My first impression was that Astronomy and Earth Science had  nothing in common. Working for EPA’s Office of Research and Development has helped me realize that satellite imaging and data collection play a large role in helping inform scientists in environmental protection and human health. Environmental monitoring once done largely in isolation is now inspiring international cooperation, such as the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, or GEOSS.

It’s inspiring to see that 40 years after the Earthrise photo was taken, science is helping us become a global community.

About the Author: Moira McGuinness joined the Science Communications Staff of EPA’s Office of Research and Development in February 2009. She manages the content on EPA’s Year of Science Web site.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. Karen permalink
    July 1, 2009

    I am with you, I used to think that they were wasting our money hand over fist in space until I realized that the technology they used in space could be used here on earth. I now work with a company that is using space certified technology in their air purifiers. The way these purifiers kill things in the air and on surfaces is amazing. They kill things like bacteria, fungi, virus, strep and e. Coli and even MRSA staph germs. It is a green technology because it reproduces the natural affect of a thunderstorm.

    I am personally thankful for this awesome technology because my daughter used to be on three medications per day for asthma and allergies and is now on NONE. I LOVE SPACE TECHNOLOGY!!!

  2. Lina-EPA permalink*
    July 2, 2009

    Nice blog. I had always found space exploration very inspiring, but didn’t know the connection with the environmental movement. Nonetheless, when you see the pictures of earth taken from space you just have to look in awe at the Planet. We definitely have to do our best to protect the land, air and water. Happy 4th of July.

  3. Nanci Panos permalink
    July 6, 2009

    Beautifully written blog! I too had no idea of the connection with the enviromental movement. I remember the pictures. I was in high school at the time. Being in high school many of us questioned our faith, and existance of a higher power. I clearly remember being convicted that God does exist, and the magnificance of His created planet. Now we have to continue to respect what we have been given, for our sake and for those who follow.

  4. Kevin McGuinness permalink
    July 7, 2009

    I remember the photograph well — and especially remember the times. There was so much going on and we had come through such a terrible, turbulent year marked by many losses. The picture was a soothing antidote to all that troubled us on earth. I confess that I too was very cynical about the “waste of money” when so many unmet needs continued to be ignored. Today I have new concerns: the emergence of a strident anti-knowledge, anti-science political voice in this country. More and more Americans need to speak up and speak out against this rising tide of of 21st century “Know Nothings and Damn Proud of It.”

  5. Sharon M. Southard permalink
    July 7, 2009

    I was in sixth grade when Apollo 8 made its historic voyage to the far side of the moon. My most vivid memory is of the astronauts, on Christmas Eve 1968, reading passages from the biblical book of Genesis as they orbited the moon with the Earth’s image in the background. I sat, riveted to the TV, as they read the story of creation. The tumultuous year 1968 — rife with assasinations, demonstrations, riots, and war — upset our social, cultural, environmental, and econimic equilibrium. The images of the Earth suspended in space helped restore my sense of oneness and unitywith everyone on the planet as I absorbed the experience. The swirling white clouds, and the blue expanse of the oceans, spoke to me of our need to preserve and protect our precious gift that is the Earth.

  6. Peter Fargo permalink
    September 23, 2010

    You said it, Moira! My Grandpa Chuck helped to design and build the rockets that propelled the Apollo missions. I’m proud of my grandfather, and I’m thrilled by space exploration in general, but like you, I used to think that EPA and NASA had little in common. I was way off. Thanks for illuminating the nexus between these two important agencies and fields. And thanks for doing it with such great prose.

  7. Christmas Recipes permalink
    October 19, 2010

    I am proud to be an American when it comes to the space program. Its too bad our society is not very Earth friendly though. I didn’t realize that space technology has done so much for us here on this planet. Hopefully it continues to help us be a better global community in the future.

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