Thoughts from the Media Lab's Space Enabled group and Space Exploration Initiative
“The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth."
— Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell
December 24, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Earthrise photo, the first full-color picture of our planet, taken by Major Bill Anders aboard the Apollo 8 mission to circumnavigate the Moon. The photo became iconic around the world almost instantly.
This view of Earth—vibrant, full of color and life—seen from the desolate surface of the Moon, 238,900 miles away, filled people with a potent mixture of loneliness and unity, peace and turmoil. It showed us, quite literally, our place in the universe: that there is only one Earth, one humanity, finite and fragile and inextricably connected. The effect was tremendous: President Nixon referenced the Apollo 8 mission and the Earthrise photo in his inaugural address less than a month after the image was released, and in 1970 Congress consolidated existing government conservation organizations into new agencies with a strong mandate for understanding and preserving the environment; thus the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were born.
Earthrise galvanized the burgeoning environmentalist movement; in 2003, nature photographer Galen Rowell declared it "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken." It was the cover of the first-ever Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand’s counterculture classic that brought environmentalists and technologists together around the idea of “sustainability.” (Curiously, though not coincidentally, Brand would go on to write Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT in 1987.)
The photo spurred the next major era of the US space program: in 1972, while announcing the launch of the Space Shuttle program, Nixon said, “Views of the Earth from space have shown us how small and fragile our home planet truly is. We are learning the imperatives of universal brotherhood and global ecology, learning to think and act as guardians of one tiny blue and green island in the trackless oceans of the Universe.”
But what does Earthrise mean for us now, today? How have the last fifty years changed—or reinforced—our view of ourselves, our planet, and our future in space?
At the MIT Media Lab, there are two innovators whose work is particularly driven by the themes underpinning Earthrise: Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences Danielle Wood directs the Space Enabled research group, and PhD student Ariel Ekblaw leads the Space Exploration Initiative.