Apollo 17: The Blue Marble

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"The Blue Marble" is one of the most widely distributed photographic images in existence, but NASA says the identity of the photographer is unverifiable. I decided to take that as a personal challenge.

"We'd like to confirm, from the crew of America, that the world is round."google_ad_client="pub-8036667578727285";google_ad_channel="";google_ad_width=120;google_ad_height=90;google_ad_format="120x90_0ads_al_s";google_color_border="B4D0DC";google_color_bg="ECF8FF";google_color_link="0000CC";google_color_url="008000";google_color_text="6F6F6F";Original NASA Caption, Saturday December 23, 1972: 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 coast of Africa is the Malagasy Republic. The Asian mainland is on the horizon toward the northeast.Earth is said to have the appearance of a child's marble in the photo; that is the Earth has the same aspect at this distance as a child's marble at about arm's length. NASA officially credits the image to the entire Apollo 17 crew — Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Jack Schmitt — all of whom took photographic images with the on-board Hasselblad. Schmitt later claimed that he personally took the famous image, but the identity of the photographer is unverifiable. -- Wikipedia
"We'd like to confirm, from the crew of America, that the world is round."

Original NASA Caption, Saturday December 23, 1972:
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 coast of Africa is the Malagasy Republic. The Asian mainland is on the horizon toward the northeast.
Earth is said to have the appearance of a child's marble in the photo; that is the Earth has the same aspect at this distance as a child's marble at about arm's length. NASA officially credits the image to the entire Apollo 17 crew — Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Jack Schmitt — all of whom took photographic images with the on-board Hasselblad. Schmitt later claimed that he personally took the famous image, but the identity of the photographer is unverifiable. -- Wikipedia

Blue Marble pages

By Eric Hartwell - Last updated July 19, 2007[1]

When I started this project, I expected to prove that the "Blue Marble" photo was taken by Jack Schmitt as commonly accepted. A year and a half later, the answer is still up in the air.

I've established that the photographer was probably Schmitt (or possibly Evans, most probably not Cernan, and definitely no one else). I've verified almost everything else:

  • The photo was taken on December 7, 1972, between 4:59:05 and 5:08:14 after launch.
  • The spacecraft was aimed towards the earth at an attitude of 274° roll, 164° pitch, 0° yaw using the Launch Pad REFSMMAT.
  • Per Murphy's Law: This was the only time during the mission when all three astronauts used the same camera:
    • Ron Evans took some Earth pictures at 4:47, then handed the camera to Gene Cernan.
    • Gene took a series of photos of the S-IVB 3rd stage ending around 5:00 after launch, then handed the camera to either Ron or Jack Schmitt.
    • Ron or Jack (and most probably not Gene) took "the" blue marble photo (actually a series of 4) between 4:59:05 and 5:08:14.
  • The Apollo 17 flight transcripts are incomplete and contradictory
  • Jack took most of the Earth photos on the outbound trip:
    • five dozen while in Earth orbit.
    • 5 more during the translunar burn, including spectacular views of the sunrise.
    • another 8 during docking
    • another 30 on the coast to the moon, following "the" photo
  • The original NASA photo release gave credit to the entire crew. The crew took credit for that picture as a whole, or would jokingly each take credit for it in turn.
  • Apollo 17 tested two new food types - irradiated ham and a nutritional fruitcake.


Who took the "Blue Marble" picture?
My theory (and what it is, too), plus a more detailed analysis in the overview section. I've prepared a separate timeline combining the flight plan, capsule communications transcript, and photos, and a geometry section discussing who and what was where, and the view from each window. I've also collected information about the cameras and photos, and posted a copy of the image catalog for the Apollo 17 photos from Earth orbit to the moon.


"Did you get any pictures of that?"

NASA released the photo on Saturday December 23, 1972, one of eight photos in the second batch released. It made the front page of most newspapers over the Christmas weekend. Who gets the credit? As we shall see, according to the geometry, the timeline, and the transcripts, it was probably either Evans or Schmitt.

Credit, Crew
The original NASA photo release gave credit to the entire crew.
No, Jack
A UPI wire story released on Saturday December 23, 1972 credited Schmitt, apparently based on the reporter's interpretation of the ground-to-earth communications from December 7.
No, Crew
The UPI caption for the wire photo released on Saturday December 23, 1972 credited the crew. The AP caption and AP stories credited the crew.
No, Crew
"The crew accept credit for that picture as a whole. I've actually been to events where all three of them kind of jokingly take credit for it. And we've never really been able to quite pin down which one of the crewmen, Cernan, Evans or Schmitt took the picture. ... No one at that time in our photo lab had any idea I think of how long lasting it would be..." -- Mike Gentry, NASA Media Resource Centre, 1999[2]
No, Ron
"Early in the mission, Astronaut Ron Evans made his most notable photographic contribution; he took a picture that will rank among the classics of the space program. As Apollo sped toward the moon after blasting into its translunar trajectory, he pointed his camera back toward home and caught a stunning view of the earth, with the side visible to the astronauts completely illuminated." -- Time Magazine, 3 weeks after landing[3]
No, Gene
"I've actually been to events where all three of them kind of jokingly take credit for it." -- Mike Gentry, again[2]
No, Jack
"I've actually been to events where all three of them kind of jokingly take credit for it." -- Mike Gentry, again[2]

What Next?

NASA's policy is to credit photos to the entire crew unless there's only one person who could have possibly taken it. The astronauts were very busy at the time the picture was taken, observing the S-IVB and the Earth, and passing the camera back and forth, so it could have been any of them. There are a number of things we can do to narrow down the possibilities:

  • Research and document this phase of the flight: See (not the) Apollo 17 Flight Journal
  • Get a copy of the original audio tape to verify the transcript, identify the speakers, and narrow down the actual times. (No reply from NASA archives in 2006)
  • Run an accurate simulation of Apollo 17's TD&E using Orbiter to establish the actual fields of view from windows 3 and 5. See Apollo-Saturn V Postflight Trajectory AS-512
  • Ask Cernan and Schmitt, and/or other Apollo crew members, to comment

Notes and references

  1. Revision history:
    July 19, 2007 - Edit, reformat, minor updates
    March 21, 2007 - Still researching (see (not the) Apollo 17 Flight Journal); updated summary; posted [AS17-Fruitcake.htm fruitcake recipe]
    March 22, 2006 - Determined geometry from pitch maneuver movie footage; general edits
    January 11, 2006 - initial version
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Alexandra de Blas, Interview with Mike Gentry: World Environment Day: Spaceship Earth, Earthbeat (Australian Broadcasting Corporation - Radio National)
  3. Time Magazine, Portfolio from Apollo, Monday, January 8, 1973. No source is given for this statement; while it may have been based on an interview with the astronauts, there's no proof so far.