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Earth Day Without Earth?
04.21.08
Photo of Earth taken by the Apollo 17 crew
This classic photograph of the Earth was taken on December 7, 1972 and remains one of NASA’s most popular images. The original caption is reprinted below:

View of the Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the moon. This translunar coast photograph extends from the Mediterranean Sea area to the Antarctica south polar ice cap. This is the first time the Apollo trajectory made it possible to photograph the south polar ice cap. Note the heavy cloud cover in the Southern Hemisphere. Almost the entire coastline of Africa is clearly visible. The Arabian Peninsula can be seen at the northeastern edge of Africa. The large island off the east coast of Africa is the Republic of Madagascar. The Asian mainland is on the horizon toward the northeast. Photo Credit: NASA

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Can you imagine what our world view would be if we’d never seen Earth from the vantage of space?

Many of us have grown up knowing exactly what Earth looks like - thanks to the hundreds of photos that were taken of the planet during NASA’s early space missions to the moon. The images are imprinted in our minds and have helped us realize how beautiful, and perhaps singular, our blue planet is within the darkness of space. Photos of Earth (in particular the image at right) remain the most popular downloads from NASA’s photography web site. These Earth images are used to this day in advertising, print materials, movies, documentaries and even personal collections and classrooms.

There are more than 700 photos of the Earth from the Apollo program, which show the planet in or near its entirety (known as “Earth disc” images). Since then, the collection of images of the Earth’s land surface, oceans, and atmosphere has grown to more than 750,000 images, from the Mercury programs all the way to present day shuttle and space station missions. Additionally, unmanned satellites in orbit around the Earth acquire terabytes (more than 1 million megabytes) of data each day.

Mike Gentry, the lead for the Media Resource Center at Johnson Space Center, has worked firsthand with the distribution of NASA’s imagery for nearly 39 years. In his opinion, the Apollo 17 image is the most widely distributed image of all time.

“It is by far the most asked for image in the NASA collection,” Gentry said. “And many of us at NASA have discussed this over the years and have agreed that it is undoubtedly the most commonly recognized and most commonly distributed image. There are many other highly recognizable photos, but the most widely distributed is, without a doubt, the Apollo 17 image of Earth."

When asked how many times the image has been used, Gentry can’t even venture a guess. “Almost as often as breathing in and breathing out,” he says. “I don't think there's been a trip I've taken that I didn't see the Apollo 17 Earth view on TV or on a billboard or in some medium or other.”

Over the years, Gentry says he has gotten many unique requests. One of the more memorable was a personal call from John Denver who wanted to do a hologram of the famed image for use in one of his concerts.

Gentry also points out, they have never been able to conclusively identify which astronaut actually took the photo.

“The crew accepts credit for that picture as a whole…. And we've never really been able to quite pin down which one of the crewmen, Cernan, Evans or Schmitt took the picture,” he said.

Those early Apollo photos undoubtedly revolutionized how people thought about our fragile planet and united humanity, but they also opened the gateway to deeper curiosity and understanding of our planet. A perfect tribute to Earth Day.