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

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.