Dec. 7, 2012 at 3:36 PM ET
It's been exactly 40 years since NASA sent astronauts to the moon for the last time, and even though more than half of all Americans weren't alive when Apollo 17 got off the ground, the mission still has a big impact on our collective memory. And perhaps the biggest impact comes in the form of a single photograph, the original Blue Marble picture of Earth's full disk.
Hours after their launch on Dec. 7, 1972, Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan and his crewmates — Harrison Schmitt and Ronald Evans — oohed and ahhed over their home planet, suspended in the blackness outside their window. "I know we're not the first to discover this, but we'd like to confirm ... that the world is round," Cernan told Mission Control.
Astronauts had been seeing the full planet from beyond Earth orbit since 1968, when Apollo 8 made a looping trip around the moon and back. In fact, Apollo 8's "Earthrise" picture of our planet at the moon's horizon also ranks among the most memorable space pictures ever taken. But there was something extraordinary about the view during Apollo 17's trip: The planet's entire disk was sunlit — a sight that astronauts had never captured on film before. The trajectory provided the best look yet at Antarctica, and Schmitt marveled over the clear view of Africa.
"If there ever was a fragile-appearing piece of blue in space, it's the Earth right now," Schmitt said.
When the original picture was released, it made front pages around the world — and it inspired a continuing series of Blue Marble images, including a version that's been commonly used on iPhone displays. Just this week, NASA released a set of "Black Marble" nighttime satellite pictures to add to the Marble repertoire.
The Blue Marble wasn't Apollo 17's only cultural legacy. Here are a few other memes that came out of the 12-day mission:
NBC News' Cape Canaveral correspondent, Jay Barbree, told me that Cernan isn't fond of his "last man on the moon" title. "He likes to be called 'the most recent astronaut on the moon,'" Barbree said. "That's his way of saying we're going back."
This week, Bloomberg.com's James Clash quoted Cernan as saying that he "honestly believed it wasn't the end, but the beginning." At the time, he told himself, "We're not only going back, but by the end of the century, humans will be well on their way to Mars."
Cernan also told Clash that he regretted missing out on what would have been another picture for the ages:
"I left my Hasselblad camera there with the lens pointing up at the zenith, the idea being someday someone would come back and find out how much deterioration solar cosmic radiation had on the glass.
"So, going up the ladder, I never took a photo of my last footstep. How dumb! Wouldn’t it have been better to take the camera with me, get the shot, take the film pack off and then (for weight restrictions) throw the camera away?"
How long will it be before someone comes across Cernan's camera and does the damage assessment? If you remember the Apollo moon missions, what did they mean to you back then, and what do they mean to you today? If you don't remember Apollo, do those missions still tug at your psyche, or does this all seem like ancient history? Feel free to leave your remarks or reminiscences as comments below, or send them as emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll compile the best of the bunch for a follow-up item next week. We'll also have a look at how the moon may (or may not) figure in future space exploration.
Update for 6 p.m. ET: So who took the Blue Marble picture? That's been the subject of debate for decades, and no one at NASA has ever come up with a definitive answer. "I've actually been to events where all three of them kind of jokingly take credit for it," NASA's Mike Gentry told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in 1999. The question has apparently been a sore point for Schmitt and Cernan in recent years, but when Barbree asked Cernan about the matter, the mission commander took the standard diplomatic line. Here's what Barbree says Cernan told him about who had the camera: "We were passing it around, and passing it around, and we really don't know who shot it. One of us did."
More about moonshots:
In addition to marking the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17's launch, the original Blue Marble serves as today's offering for the Cosmic Log Space Advent Calendar, which features views of Earth from outer space on a daily basis from now until Christmas. Check out these other holiday goodies:
More space calendar entries: