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Review: Earthrise

Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth
by Robert Poole
Yale University Press, 2008
hardcover, 236 pp.
ISBN 978-0-300-13766-8
US$26

To British historian Robert Poole, the word Earthrise is a term of art. The word was invented to describe the image captured by the crew of Apollo 8 when they photographed the Earth ascending from the lunar horizon. Poole asserts in his book Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth that the 1968 photo was the defining moment of the twentieth century.

It was the first time humans had seen the isolation, the beauty, the fragility, the blueness of their planetary home in situ. The image gave birth to the ecology movement. It was followed by the 1972 photo of the “Blue Marble” obtained by Apollo 17. Poole declares this image of the whole Earth is “a photographic manifesto for global justice.” Worth more than the proverbial thousand words, these pictures are worth an entire ethos.

The missions did not include Earth gazing. It was the sensibilities of the spacefarers themselves that were more awestruck by the glorious Earth than the barren Moon.

By bracketing the Apollo years, these two astounding photographs pulled the very essence of lunar exploration into focus. What was discovered by going to the Moon was our own planet. We had to go there to see here. From Earth we face outwards, but only space travelers can face Earth. As Poole neatly states, “The space programme, which was meant to show mankind that its home was only its cradle, ended up showing that its cradle was its only home.”

Capturing these iconic images was almost accidental and Poole’s book is a marvelous account of the process, taking into account the broadest NASA administrative policies to the most specific camera aperture settings. The entire Apollo program was Moon-oriented—how to get there, touch it, measure it, weight it, sample it. The missions did not include Earth gazing. It was the sensibilities of the spacefarers themselves that were more awestruck by the glorious Earth than the barren Moon. It is odd to consider how many of these hard-boiled pilots returned from deep space as environmentalists, proselytizers, and spiritualists. But Poole reminds us that many of them received military training during the era of hair-trigger-threatened nuclear annihilation. “The astronauts who beheld the whole Earth had more reason than most to understand the fragility of what they were seeing,” Poole writes. “The transformation of some into apostles of the unity of humankind was entirely understandable.”

Such figurative and literal expansion of horizons is one of the gifts of space travel that still so few have experienced. Poole quotes Sultan Bin Salman al-Saud from Saudi Arabia, the first Islamic astronaut, on his orbital education: “The first or so we all pointed out our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing out our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.”

From the opening gambit of his book, Poole demonstrates his ability to present fresh material. He provides a transcript from the Apollo 8 onboard voice recorder from just the moment Earthrise is witnessed for the very first time by the surprised and delighted crew. Frank Borman says, “Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that is pretty!” Borman apparently takes pictures with his camera, at which point Bill Anders says, “Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.” Thankfully, the transcript notes laughter in the spacecraft, indicating that Anders was poking fun at mission commander Borman for his relentless herding of the crew to stay on schedule and that is the spirit in which the joke was taken. The transcript continues:

Borman: “You got a color film, Jim?”
Anders: “Hand me that roll of color quick, will you—”
Lovell: “Oh man, that’s great!”
Anders: “Hurry. Quick—”
Lovell: “Take several of them! Here, give it to me.”
Borman: “Calm down, Lovell.”

Priceless.

The issue of color photographs becomes a major component of Poole’s book. Frank Borman took excellent photos of Earthrise, but they were on black and white film stock and made little impression on the public. Bill Anders snapped the color image which became so famous that it was subsequently issued as a US postage stamp. When Harrison Schmitt caught the whole Earth as the “Blue Marble” from Apollo 17, it went on to be the most reproduced photograph in history. Poole points out that while equally dramatic pictures of Earth predated these, they were in black and white. An unmanned Soviet lunar probe even sent back images of Earthrise over the moon’s horizon before Apollo 8, but they were in black and white. Poole writes that while black and white pictures had moved minds, “the sight of a colored pebble hovering above the barren lunar landscape moved hearts.” So why is it that the photos accompanying Earthrise (with the exception of the dust jacket) are all black and white? Poole says repeatedly in the text and the notes that color photos could not be reproduced for the book. Could the publisher not have delivered this production value when color is such a vital element of the author’s thesis?

Poole writes that while black and white pictures had moved minds, “the sight of a colored pebble hovering above the barren lunar landscape moved hearts.”

Poole’s footnotes show a high level of primary and secondary sources. For instance, interviews with Richard Underwood, the man who trained all of NASA’s astronauts in photography, reveal great tidbits. When it was realized that Apollo 11 produced no definitive still photo of Neil Armstrong on the moon, the Public Affairs Office asked Underwood, “Why don’t we say this picture by the flag is Armstrong? How do you know? You can’t see his face or anything.” Underwood wisely advised against that sham, saying, “Some eight-year-old kid would be bound to spot it.” Earthrise is too well researched for glaring errors, but Poole needs to provide further explanation when he refers to such things as “three-man Gemini missions” and Jacques Cousteau going deep sea diving at “an island off New Mexico.”

With so much written about space exploration in general and the Apollo program in particular, researchers now have to focus on increasingly specific aspects of the era. Poole is to be admired for underscoring the essence of photographing Earth from space and for concentrating on two iconic photographs. Their legacy is bittersweet. He reminds us that these greatest trophies of the lunar excursions are also the greatest liability, “for they conveyed to the public the implicit message that humanity’s much-vaunted ‘destiny in space’ was in fact the rediscovery of the home planet.”


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