THIRTY YEARS AGO, APOLLO 11 BLASTED OFF FROM Cape Canaveral before the collective admiring gaze of
1 million witnesses, who had assembled on the Florida coast for what was essentially the rocket lover's counterpart to Woodstock, an earthshaking light show that roared at decibel levels undreamt of by even the noisiest rockers. The ostensible mission of Apollo 11, of course, was to land a man on the moon, but in restrospect its most enduring legacy — and indeed, that of the entire Apollo program — was the production of a dozen or so indelible images. Billed as scientific exploration, it could just as accurately be described as the most expensive photo shoot in history.
While this might seem like a jaded, fin-de-siècle perspective on the heroics of space flight, it was a viewpoint that was already in play before Neil Armstrong first trod the lunar dust. “I wouldn't want to be quoted on this, but we've spent $35 to $40 billion on the space program,” then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson remarked in 1967. “And if nothing else has come of it except the knowledge we've gained from space photography, it would be worth 10 times what the whole program cost.”
The Apollo PR team had evidently been thinking along similar lines. Back in the dark ages of the Mercury program, John Glenn had been forced to document the first U.S. manned orbital space flight with an inexpensive camera he'd purchased at a Cocoa Beach drugstore. But if NASA was then oblivious to the value of photographic documentation, it soon wised up. Seven years later, the Apollo moonwalkers stumbled around on the lunar
surface with chest-mounted, medium-format Hasselblads. And the program as a whole would eventually produce more than 32,000 pictures, 17,000 of them hand-held images taken by astronaut-photographers. (129 of these have been collected in Michael Light's Full Moon from Knopf.)
A few of these rank among the century's most unforgettable photographs. Reproduced in news outlets around the globe, Armstrong's famous shot of Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin standing on the moon beside a U.S. flag is a masterpiece of Cold War PR — never mind that the flag did get blown to the ground when the astronauts blasted off the lunar surface a few hours later. Landing on the moon may have offered no strategic military advantage, but images like this one were fabulous advertisements for the power of U.S.-style capitalism. And beyond that, Aldrin's uncannily faceless figure, clad in bulky spacesuit and helmet, became an instant icon of the West's technological mastery, a climactic image of modernism's historic pursuit to conquer nature.
Yet the Apollo program's most riveting pictures were not of the moon landing or even of the moon at all, but of an Earth that, seen from space, resembled an exquisitely marbled blue-and-white orb. Warm earthy browns and deep ocean blues glowed through filigrees of cloud cover. One astronaut compared it to a dazzling Christmas ornament; all agreed it was stunningly beautiful. The
late Alan Shepard, commander of Apollo 14, reportedly stepped on the moon, looked up at the sky to see Earth glowing above him, and wept. Over the ensuing years, it has become something of a cliché among space-flight chroniclers that NASA's lunar voyages led to the discovery not of the moon, but of our own planet.
The first landmark image in this inverted astronomy, taken from Apollo 8 as it rounded the far side of the moon, depicted Earth rising over the desolate lunar horizon, a jewellike fixture in the strange barren heavens of another planet. In a sense, this 1968 photo was the reverse shot of all the innumerable lunar images taken by countless photographers since John William Draper took the first photograph of the moon in 1840. But whereas in Hollywood movies the reverse shot reveals the viewpoint of an onscreen protagonist, NASA's haunting image left us wondering from just whose perspective we were seeing our own planet.
NASA's most celebrated photograph, which ended up adorning the covers of endless environmental publications in the 1970s, was the “Whole Earth” image taken from Apollo 17, the first flight on which the astronauts got a full, unshadowed view of the planet they had left behind. Not only was the Earth portrayed as a whole and singular entity for the first time in history, but it also appeared dwarfed and insignificant compared to the vast and hostile darkness surrounding it, a lonely luminous island floating in an indifferent universe. “It's the abject smallness of the Earth that gets you,” commented Apollo 14's Stu Roosa.
The photo was a truly ambiguous icon. Mother Earth, it seemed to say, was an orphan, cast adrift in the interstellar sea. Yet at the same time the image portrayed the planet as if it were a living, and potentially perishable, organism. No image had ever conjured its delicacy and preciousness so effectively. Ironically, the Apollo program, itself an outgrowth of the technological domination of nature, ended up producing the ultimate valentine to Spaceship Earth.
Could a new picture of our planet lead to a new way of thinking about it? For many people — and not just wishful environmentalists — these photographs of Earth promised to inaugurate a new, more holistic era in human consciousness. “To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who now know they are truly brothers,” poet Archibald MacLeish wrote in the 1968 Christmas edition of The New York Times.
SUCH HOPEFUL MUSINGS DID NOT SIMPLY GROW out of the intoxicating media hype generated by the Apollo program; indeed, they echoed the sober speculations made over two decades earlier by British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle. “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available — once the sheer isolation of the Earth becomes known — a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose,” Hoyle had stated.
As we close out the century, no such force has yet been unleashed by the Apollo pictures. MacLeish's
belief that they had the power to “remake our image of mankind” now seems almost laughably naive. When we gaze at these once-startling images, we may still feel
astounded by Earth's beauty or moved by its isolation, but our stubborn mental images of the world —
the images that influence our daily behavior — are
unaffected by the momentary insights delivered by a
So, some three decades later, with all utopian dreams in deep storage, we are left only with a handful of unforgettable multibillion-dollar pictures seemingly taken from a God's-eye perspective. Leaving us to wonder who might be watching us out there, they make for a quixotic monument to the Cold War paranoia that originally engendered the space race and propelled a small group of men — and their cameras — to that big tripod in the sky. And ultimately they serve to remind us not only of the enormous power of photography, but also of its inescapable limitations.