Pictures of Earth from space

science & space

Restored images of Earth captured during the Apollo missions cast new light on the fragility of our planet.

The photos of Earth against the blackness of space are perhaps the greatest legacy of the Apollo Program. As Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders said on returning from the first voyage beyond Earth’s orbit: “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

Apollo images such as ‘Earthrise’, captured by Bill Anders during Apollo 8, and ‘The Blue Marble’, captured by the Apollo 17 crew, are not just famous images of Earth, they are among the most widely reproduced photos of all time.

More about Apollo:

The contrast of the delicate blue and white sphere with the inhospitable void and barren Moon became the iconic image for the growing environmentalist movement. And the image of a world without borders helped people see a world more united than divided.

But why haven’t these photos, great as they are, been eclipsed by others over the last five decades?

A key reason is that since the Apollo Program, astronauts have got no higher than low-Earth orbit – less than 1% of the way to the Moon.

Taking a photo of Earth from there is like taking a portrait of a friend with the camera less than a centimetre from their face.

You might be able to capture the texture of their skin, but any attempt to render their entire face would be distorted.

And while some of the autonomous spacecraft destined for other worlds turned their sensors around for a parting shot, their cameras weren’t designed for the job, producing inferior images.

In contrast, as the Apollo astronauts travelled out towards the Moon, they reached the perfect distances for planetary portraiture.

NASA had provided some of the world’s best equipment for photographing Earth: Hasselblad 500 EL cameras, Zeiss lenses and 70mm Kodak Ektachrome film.

They were thus able to faithfully record Earth’s true colours as they appeared to the human eye.

If we look at this image from Apollo 16 (above), what we see isn’t the bright green and blue circle that has come to represent our planet.

Instead, it is primarily a world of blue and white, with brown continents and just a suggestion of muted green in places of lush vegetation:

“I was able to look out the window to see this incredible sight of the whole circle of the Earth,” said Apollo 16’s Charlie Duke.

“Oceans were crystal blue, the land was brown, and the clouds and the snow were pure white. And that jewel of Earth was just hung up in the blackness of space.”

Restoring the Apollo Earth photographs

Struck by the beauty of the most famous photographs, I wondered if there were more. So began a journey that would occupy my evenings over the next three years.

I hunted through all 18,000 Hasselblad photos from the Apollo missions for the best images that time forgot, and digitally restored them to bring out their full glory.

It was these lost images of Apollo that were the real rivals to the most well-known ones.

One of my favourite hidden gems is the crescent earthrise from Apollo 12 (above).

It was captured by Richard Gordon as he circled the Moon alone in the Command Module, awaiting his companions’ return. It was overlooked for years as the original negative was poorly exposed and washed out.

But as soon as I properly adjusted the levels, it took my breath away, revealing a haunting scene with an even more graceful and fragile view of the Earth and Moon than Apollo 8’s famous ‘Earthrise’ photo.

I chose it for the cover of my book The Precipice, which looks at humanity’s own fragility in these challenging times.

Another one of my favourite photos is from Apollo 13. Two days in, the craft suffered a dramatic explosion, venting the contents of the Service Module’s oxygen tanks into space, leaving the Command Module without enough breathable air to get home.

This ethereal photo (below), at first appears to show the Moon, but it is really the crescent Earth amidst the ghostly reflections of the Lunar Module.

They were 80,000km and seven hours away from safety – this photo captures this stolen moment, yearning for home.

It was an absolute treat to be able to play a role in reviving these images. There are so many more great photos that have never been restored.

But, since raw scans of all the images are publicly available, anyone can try their hand.

View more Apollo images via the Apollo Archive Flickr page. See more of Toby’s Apollo images at tobyord.com/earth.

More Apollo images of Earth

A view of the crescent Earth captured by an automatic camera during the Apollo 4 mission, 9 November 1967.

The moment human beings saw the disc of Earth against the blackness of space with their own eyes. This image was captured during Apollo 8, 21 December 1968.

The first earthrise photo, captured by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders moments before his more famous colour shot, 24 December 1968.

Bill Anders’ famous colour earthrise shot, captured during Apollo 8, 24 December 1968.
North America and the Pacific can be seen clearly in this view of Earth captured during Apollo 10, 18 May 1969.

A slightly more obscure image of our home planet, captured by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin during the first crewed moonlanding. It shows Earth as seen from the Lunar Module before it separated and descended to the surface of the Moon, 20 July 1969.

Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins captured this image of the Lunar Module carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin back up to the Command Module after the mission that made them the first humans to step foot on the Moon, 21 July 1969.

An attempt to capture a total eclipse of the Sun by the Earth with a long exposure during Apollo 12, 24 November 1969. A glowing ring of atmosphere can be seen around Earth, but the thin circle is blurred by hand shake and a camera malfunction has spread the light vertically across the image.

Apollo 12 slips out of Earth’s shadow, and the eclipse comes to an end. The astronauts can now see the Sun shining from behind Earth’s silhouette, 24 November 1969.

A crescent Earth surrounded by reflections of the Lunar Module during Apollo 13. The Lunar Module became the Apollo 13 astronauts’ only hope of survival once the Command Module lost power. This image was captured 3 days after the explosion on 17 April 1970. Home must have seemed a very long way away.

A black and white earthrise captured during Apollo 14, 7 February 1971. When this image was taken, the astronauts were returning from the far side of the Moon on their journey home.

An Apollo 15 earthrise, 4 August 1971. It may not seem it, but this image in in colour. The lunar surface is at the top of the image and Earth is below it, perhaps giving a more accurate depiction of the sensation of spaceflight. In space, there is no ‘up’!

Apollo 17 was the last crewed mission to the Moon, or as astronaut Gene Cernan would have put it, the ‘most recent’ crewed mission to the Moon. This crescent earthrise was captured on 16 December 1972.

The last image of the whole Earth taken by a human being, during Apollo 17, 17 December 1972.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.