19 July 2013

Pale Blue Dot

Today we can be fascinated by the prospect of seeing Earth from such a distance that it can be depicted by just a few pixels. The 'blue dot' image is a radical and though provoking summation of our planet, but there is an history behind the picture which can be traced back to an event 47 years ago.


The Picture of the Century.

In November 1966 a picture of the moon was returned to Earth by radio transmission. The picture quickly became known as ‘The Picture of the Century’. The photograph was taken by the Lunar Orbiter 2 spacecraft which had been placed in a low orbit around the Moon.  Its mission was to obtain a series of photographs of possible landing sites for Apollo astronauts. Although this picture is no longer famous, several versions of the photograph have become cultural icons reflecting and even changing our feelings about the Earth.

Front page story - Daily Mail - Thursday 1st December 1966

The 1966 Picture of the Century appealed to the popular imagination because it was different from previous telescopic photographs of the moon. The oblique angle and 28 mile altitude of the viewpoint created a spectacular impression of what it might be like to 'fly’ over the surface of the moon. Unlike views from Earth it did not have the flattened look characteristic of pictures taken through telescopes. It was a new picture of a landscape that was very ancient. The brilliantly light lunar scene resembles an aerial view of the high deserts or the Himalaya on Earth, but the airless black sky beyond the horizon makes the landscape both familiar and alien. 

When Galileo first pointed a rudimentary telescope at the Moon he was the first person to see craters there. He was surprised and others were dismayed. His discovery undermined a medieval belief in the harmony of the spheres. Over the years imaginative  pictures of the Moon, such as those of Chesley Bonstell in the 1940s, had not fully prepared the public for this image of day turned into night. The 'Picture of the Century' is like vision from a dream of death. Two months later three American astronauts died in an oxygen fire during a launch rehearsal at the Kennedy Space Centre. Three months later Vladimir Komarov was killed after a parachute failure on the first Soviet Soyuz capsule to be flown in space. 

The race to the Moon was a product of the cold war and astronauts were prepared to accept risks similar to those of aerial combat. Alexey Leonov is reputed to have had a suicide pill available to him to use in case of the first space walk outside a voskhod capsule ended with him unable to return to the inflatable airlock. The technology of spaceflight was derived from intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Lunar Orbiter 2 spacecraft had a photographic system derived from reconnaissance aircraft. Unlike the electronic videcon cameras on the earlier Mariner probes to Mars, the Lunar Orbiters were equipped with a 70mm film camera and on-board chemical processing system which delivered the film to an electronic scanner. The output from the scanner was then relayed back to receiving stations on Earth.


The race to the moon continued and despite the initial excitement caused by 'The Picture of the Century' it faded from public attention. Two years later the Apollo 8 mission sent a three man crew into Lunar orbit. Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders became the first humans to travel the 240.000 miles to the moon and see its far side from orbit. the Apollo astronauts risked being stranded in space by engine failure, deprived of air by technical failure, and exposure to radiation.

As well as practising manoeuvres for a full lunar landing, the crew exposed many rolls of 120 format film, continuing the work of the unmanned Lunar Orbiters. One particular picture became more famous than The Picture of the Century. On 24th December 1968 the crew of Apollo 8 saw the Earth rising above the horizon of the moon and made a number of exposures with their modified hand-held Hasselblad cameras. The picture that became know as Earthrise soon acquired a cultural significance that had not been anticipated.

During the Century leading up to the first landing on the moon, attention had understandably been focused on the outward view from the Earth. National Geographic magazine printed photographs of the moon in its January 1953 edition featuring the Mount Palomar telescope. Whereas these pictures were mostly vertical views of the moons surface, in the 1966 Picture of the Century the horizon to appears within the frame. In 1968 the Apollo 8 Earthrise picture showed our planet to as seen from a point above the moon. In the terminology of cinema editing it is like a reverse-field shot.

The almost colourless and airless foreground of the moon provides a very stark contrast with the atmosphere of the Earth. Aesthetically the picture satisfies definitions of beauty dating back to ancient Greece. Plato would have regarded the Earthrise picture as evidence of the concept of hidden geometries behind the everyday appearance of reality and beauty in particular. The seemingly random distribution of clouds constrained by the circle of the globe could be said to support he idea that the beautiful aspects of existence depended on their degree of concord with a hidden realm of celestial harmony. Aristotle would have been interested in the 'fitness for purpose' of the Earth. The fact that it is the abode of all known life would have qualified our planet in those terms. 

Jumping forward to the 17th century Edmund Burke, in the Age of Enlightenment, would have regarded the Earthrise picture as a supreme of example of the sense of awe created by the sublime. The foreground of the lifeless Moon with the Earth hovering uncertainly in the vacuum of space is a terrifying image while being beautiful at the same time. Perhaps the circumstances of the taking of the photograph contributes to the sense of danger in the image. Astronauts venturing to the Moon have to take all their air with them. The possibility of death that is implicit within our understanding of the picture only adds to the sense of pleasure when viewing it from a position of safety. 

From the viewpoint of 20th century photography the Earthrise satisfies the important criteria. Susan Sontag wrote in the chapter 'the Heroism of Vision' in her book 'On Photography':
"The history of photography can be recapitulated as the struggle between two different imperatives: beautification, which comes from the fine arts, and truth-telling, which is measured not only by a notion of value-free truth, a legacy from the sciences, but by a moralized ideal of truth-telling, adapted from nineteenth-century literary models and from the (then) new profession of independent journalism."
The Earthrise picture is a superb photograph because it has a beauty that is purely photographic and it is open to a moral interpretation about the goodness of nature. The picture would not be convincing as a painting, it works because photography eliminates the distance between object and image. The medium of photography is well suited to mass reproduction in books and magazines and the Earthrise picture spread this way.


                                 Historical Context

The Apollo 8 Earthrise photograph coincided with a period of political turmoil created by political assassination, civil unrest and escalating involvement in the Vietnam War. The American  high intensity ‘arclight’ bombing, combined with the use of chemical defoliant sprays to remove vegetation cover for the North Vietnamese forces was creating images of destruction that overlapped with the growing awareness of industrial pollution. At the peak of bombing, the United States was dropping as 800 tons of bombs every day.

Despite warnings from the manufacturer Du Pont, the Pentagon authorised the use of the defoliant that could only be manufactured in the quantities they needed with the contaminant dioxin. The chemical, codenamed ‘Agent Orange’, was intended to deny the Vietcong fighters the advantage of a jungle hiding-place but the resulting collateral damage of contamination produced illness and birth defects in the Vietnamese civilian population reminiscent of the Minamata mercury poisoning fiasco in Japan a decade earlier. Anti Vietnam War protests began to coalesce with growing concern over pollution that was emerging on a globaly.

In the 19th Century industrial pollution of air and water had been considered to be a local problem that could be solved by dilution and dissipation. Overcrowded communities were as much a cause of disease as proximity to the industrial processes in which they worked. At the time of the earthrise photograph the implications of Rachel Carson's book 'Silent Spring' were only just being understood. The effluvia of the 19th century industry and slums were essentially biological. They only needed effective biological treatment to be made harmless. Carson was the first successful communicator to understand that nature could not 'digest' the new invisible chemical pollution created by new industrial processes. 

In the first half of the 20th century it was assumed that dilution through dispersal would be the answer to problems caused by chemical pollutants. The testing of atomic bombs, and from 1953 hydrogen bombs, made explicit the tacit knowledge that the atmosphere was finite. Because the hydrogen bomb is roughly 1000 time as as powerful as an atomic bomb, the convection currents from these explosions would punch a hole through to the stratosphere. Once caught by high velocity winds radio-active particles would be dispersed around the globe. In a sense these tests were like a very dangerous experiment in global atmospheric circulation. It is widely believed that these tests resulted in multiple deaths around the world. Even today the long term isotopes from the hydrogen bomb tests are present in the tissue of every living thing.

Such was the strength of the radiation, contamination from individual atmospheric (above ground) explosions  could be tracked. The progress of radio-active clouds was reported day by day in the media. In 1962 the atmospheric test ban brought most of these occurrences to an end, but the globally distributed and accumulated radiation illustrated that the technological achievements of humankind had overreached themselves to the point where the finite nature of the atmosphere could not be ignored. Radio-active fallout showed that our atmosphere is finite and that dilution of a pollutant can not be guaranteed to make it less dangerous. 

The Counter Culture.

After the drama of the Apollo 8 mission had subsided this Earthrise photograph was reproduced increasingly in the context of the growing environmental movement, usually referred to as ecology in the terminology of the time. In 1968 Stewart Brand who started the 'Whole Earth Catalog' had already used a weather satellite derived picture of the Earth on the cover of his influential publication. Brand had campaigned for two years to persuade NASA to release an image of the globe of the earth believing it could function as a catalyst for social change. The catalog was intended to help the millions young American who were experimenting with communal living based on self-sufficiency. Since the time of Thoreau there had been an undercurrent of resistance to industrialisation and a belief in self-sufficiency.

The role of the Apollo project in re-conceptualising our relationship to nature was already being acknowledged by the time Apollo 11 was on the Moon. The September 25th edition of Time magazine allowed itself some speculation as to the longer term meaning of the project. 

   To some, Apollo 11’s mission to the moon means hope for a less anthropocentric view of man and a new perspective on the human condition. “I think if we can get far away from ourselves, we should be able to look back down here and see how tiny the earth is,” said Rita Moore, an Atlanta secretary. “Maybe we’ll be able to see now that we are all on a small planet and we ought to be working together.” Said famed biochemist Isaac Asimov: “It will teach us to be humble. The earth is a small body, a tiny thing lost in a vast universe.”
                                Time Magazine – July 25th 1969

In the same issue is an item about husband of Joan Baez, David Harris, being arrested for 'draft dodging' and a review of the film ‘Easy Rider'. The caption to the iconic publicity picture reads "A film about two nobodies, directed by a weirdo". The actual review is a little more appreciative. The film was an attempt to produce a counter-cultural film from within the Hollywood system. Now considered to be a classic road movie, the three characters undertake a journey from Los Angeles to New Orleans on motorcycles. Like most quest narratives the two characters are in search of psychological fulfilment, an essentially literary idea that gives rise to an authorial critique of society. 

At the start of their journey the two bikers symbolically discard their watches. On their way a they meet a fictionalised representation of the hippy communes that were attempting to find a new way of life. Like Thoreau, the characters in Easy Rider are seeking access to a world hidden by materialism. Thoreau wanted to see the divine in nature without the interference of an intervening dogma. All the characters in easy rider need freedom from hegemony, but the story ends in death and fire.

A more radical use of the road movie genre is 'Two- Lane Black top, made in 1971 by Monty Hellman. Using a kind of Brechtian distantiation, the three main characters are “GTO”, “The Driver” and “The Girl”. The cars that appear in the film are given equal billing in the credits. Nominally a story about two men who gain a living by drag-racing. The characters are rootless and in their conversation almost as mechanical in their car. Like the biker in 'Easy rider* they are detached from time. On arrival at a small town where nothing is open yet, 'The Driver' states "It must be Sunday."

The One could question whether the men own the car or do the car actually own the men? Is everyone in the industrialised world a prisoner of technology? As the tension to the final race builds, we see ‘our’ car set off from a rear seat perspective, but it is the film that crashes. In a surprising twist to the-then fashionable freeze frame ending, the film ends when a reel stops in a projector with the lamp still on full power. The frame visibly blisters, burns and melts away, drawing a parallel between the mechanics behind the illusion of film and the mechanics of the cars. 

Both films end in fire, Easy Rider ends with death at the hands of rednecks and Two- Lane Blacktop ends with the film itself apparently burning. Realistically they can have no other ends because the stories are 'unmapping' narratives. It is this aspect of the films that makes them more subversive than the events depicted. Unmapping was defined by Richard Philips in his book "Mapping Men and Empire - A geography of adventure":

"To unmap literally is to denaturalise geography, hence to undermine the world views that rest upon it. Metaphorically, unmapping means denaturalising more abstract constructs, such as race and gender, which are mapped in imaginative geography. Unmapping is a critical project, a form of resistance to received or mapped world views."

The Blue Marble

The most reproduced picture of the Earth, the 'blue marble' photograph was taken on the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. The Apollo 17 'blue marble' picture can be understood as an unmapping image in which the hubris of the geographies of dominant culture is exposed. Even the greatest constructions of civilisation are not visible. The most obvious feature is the life-giving atmosphere. The ocean of air which generations have taken for granted. The first time its continuation was doubted was just before the testing of the first atomic bomb when there was briefly a suggestion that it might ignite the atmosphere. Fortunately this turned out to be impossible.

The 'blue marble' picture reminds us that our atmosphere is life. Vladimir Kamarov died trying to return to our ocean of air. The Apollo fire resulted from an attempt to substitute pure oxygen for a natural atmosphere. The biosphere 2 project attempted to create a sealed artificial environment in which the functioning of the biosphere would be replicated. It failed because the designers failed to appreciate the intricacies of relationship between the soil and the atmosphere. 

Blue marble picture used in a poster from April 2013
The earth photographs recalibrate the scale of our awareness of nature, but what has made the 'Blue Marble' the most popular and reproduced of the the photographs? Unlike the Apollo 8 Earthrise picture which was taken serendipitously, the Apollo 17 mission planners scheduled the first picture of the globe fully in daylight. The astronauts were at a relatively  close distance of 28,000 miles which results in a more rounded appearance to the Earth. For Gaston Bachelard, author of the 1958 book 'The Poetics of Space' roundness was the best symbol for a living being. He imagined a bird to be like a ball:
 "..as a centralisation of life guarded on every side, enclosed in a live ball, and consequently, at the maximum of its unity."
Apollo 17 picture still use as an illustration  42 years later.

The Pale Blue Dot

The Pale Blue dot picture of Earth was instigated by Carl Sagan who, like Stewart Brand 24 years previously, requested that NASA
create an image of the earth, but this time from the Voyager 1 spacecraft which had been exploring the outer planets since 1977. The plan was to point the Voyager 1 cameras towards the Sun. On the 14th February 1990 Voyager 1, then  6 billion kms from Earth, took the so-called family portrait sequence of photographs including Jupiter, Earth, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and the Sun. Pluto was too faint and Mercury was lost in the glare of the Sun. Buried in the data there is an indication that the cameras detected our moon, but it does not appear in any picture produced. From the perspective of the edge of our solar system the moon and the earth merge into one dot. 

The image is literally the size of a full stop but the planet it depicts has contained everything we have ever known. It is the site of all our feelings and those of our ancestors. Sagan first suggested the blue dot image in 1981 because he felt that it would be a poetic statement about the earth. Since the first Earthrise picture captured the public imagination James Lovelock had developed the gaia hypothesis of a self regulating global climate that was endangered by human emissions of greenhouse gasses. Carl Sagan once shared an office with James Lovelock and new of his work. After taking the pale blue dot picture, the Videcon camera on Voyager was finally switched off to conserve power. Richard Truly who had authorised these last Voyager pictures left NASA and went on to lead the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 both continue to send signals from the edge of the solar system and may have entered the realm of interstellar space. 

The Black Marble

In 2012 a new image of the Earth at night was synthesised from data returned by the Suomi NPP satellite. The Black Marble image of the world is a more modern version of the Blue Marble picture, but now made from multiple views of the night side of Earth, stitched together with computer a programme. It is also similar to the original Picture of the Century as it is synthesised from viewpoint of automatic satellites. All natural features apart from the outlines of land masses have been removed from the globe.
Multiple passes of the satellite reveal the largely artificial light created by human activity. The areas of light represent artificial illumination created by humans. The black areas are where nature predominates or where humans do not dominate the landscape, or they cannot afford electricity.

The Black marble picture is reminiscent of a pre-CCT/MRI model of the human brain circulation. Before modern imaging techniques the only way to create a model the blood supply injection the blood vessels of a postmortem brain with resin, before dissolving the biological tissue with acid. Today a similar model of a living brain could be made with a combination of CCT/MRI derived data and a 3D printer. The Black marble picture shows the Earth mostly with nature removed leaving the skeleton of energy consumption that is the backbone of the modern global economy. This data has been further developed into a fascinating animation video called 'Welcome to the Anthropocene' produced at the International Geosphere and Biosphere Project.The narrated animation tells the story of how the influence of human activity is now so great we are living in a time that could be regarded as a new geological age.


From 1966 when the 'Picture of the Century' made to 1990 when 'Pale Blue Dot' was sent from Voyager 1, there was a revolution in our understanding of the status of our atmosphere. In 1966 invisible poisons in the air were a major concern, but by 1990 the emphasis had moved to the potential for damage caused by global warming created by greenhouse gasses. An unintended consequence of space exploration has been an increased awareness how precious but fragile the Earth is. Before the Space Age the 'globe' was a more abstract concept that did not enter into policy. While discrete geographies were considered, the most common image of the Earth was a political map with just the polar regions shown as unpopulated areas. Pictures of the Earth from space have made our planet seem more real. The 'unmapping' images from space have alerted us to the concrete realities that cannot be ignored. 

In her 1965 essay, 'One culture and the new sensibility' Susan Sontag was strangely sanguine about "the clean automated technology that is coming into being in the second half of the 20th century." Her insight into the possibilities of transformation through technology were more prescient. She argued that both the distinctions between 'high' and 'low' culture and between art and science would disappear under the influence of technology. Based on the belief that technology changes the way people think by changing the way they experience Sontag pointed to a rather nebulous list of cultural practitioners who would create a "new social alignment."

Today, the Internet and the creative potential of computers could be seen as a realisation of that prediction. The 'Welcome to the Anthopocene' animated video could not be made without a computer. More importantly, the way in which the piece is made, from data generated by a satellite, suggests that it belongs to a new cultural form. The function of the video is to make a narrative from normally invisible phenomena. The form follows from that need. 
It may be possible to exagerate the impact these images have had. While the successive images of Earth from space have been credited with changing our awareness of the environmental problems it faces, that is not always true. This cartoon image of self-satisfied consumers occupying their own lonely planet may be a rather cynical re-working of the Earthrise/Blue Marble pictures, but it does illustrate how much these images have been incorporated into our culture.

John Stockton.

19th July 2013.



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