Gather ’round, space enthusiasts, environmentalists, and
photographers all, for we’re celebrating the 33rd birthday of NASA archive item
AS17-148-22727. Never heard of it? Here are a few clues: AS17 means Apollo 17, 148 indicates roll 148, and 22727
signifies frame 22,727. Still got the
what-are-you-talking-about-Trivia-boy look on your face? OK, last hint: The
Blue Marble.

That’s right—we’re talking about the last full-color,
full-frame picture of Earth taken by a human being, otherwise known as the Blue Marble photo.
Taken mere hours after launch by the crew of Apollo 17 on Dec. 7, 1972, the
Blue Marble was the first clear, color image of the entire illuminated face of
the earth.

A member of the Apollo crew took the famous shot using a handheld
Hasselblad camera. Exactly who took
it, no one can say, as all three astronauts took turns snapping pics throughout
the Apollo 17 mission. Astronaut Harrison Schmitt often asserts authorship of
the photo, but there is no means to verify his claim.

Though satellites have been taking images of the earth—in
one form or another—since the 1950s, it wasn’t until the translunar Apollo
missions that modern color photographic equipment was in the hands of human
photographers at a sufficient distance from earth to capture the whole lighted
face of the planet in a single shot. So stirring was the image that many
environmental and political groups have used it over the years to illustrate
the fragility of the planet, subsequently making the Blue Marble one of the
most recognized and widely reproduced photographs of all time.

It also didn’t hurt that Apollo 17 was the last manned moon
mission, so there hasn’t exactly been a load of competition for a better whole-earth
photo in the last 30 years. While conventional satellites and space probes have
produced component images, digitally combined to create a “complete”
image of the earth, there hasn’t been a “true” whole-earth photo of
comparable quality to the Blue Marble—either before Apollo 17 or since.

Ironically, despite its fame and its formal distinction,
most displays of the Blue Marble photograph aren’t true to the actual photo—and
we’re not just talking about cropping the frame and boosting the color. A very
basic fact about the original Blue Marble photo often goes unacknowledged in
reproductions of the picture.


What’s technically “wrong” with most reproductions
of the famous Blue Marble photo of the earth, originally taken by the crew of
the Apollo 17 lunar mission?

Simply put: Most people are looking at the Blue Marble photo
upside down. The trajectory of the Apollo 17 spacecraft meant that the flight
deck of the Command Module was oriented with the south pole of earth facing up.
So, strictly speaking, any displays of the Blue Marble photograph with
Antarctica at the bottom of the frame are technically incorrect.

That said, it took an explicit confluence of circumstances
to make the original Blue Marble photo possible, not the least of which were
the timing and position of Apollo 17’s trajectory. Apollo 17 launched from Cape
Kennedy in the wee hours of the morning, 12:33 A.M. EST, on Dec. 7, 1972. That
schedule allowed the spacecraft to break parking orbit at about 3:51 A.M. EST,
sending Apollo away from Earth along its scheduled course above southern Africa
and Antarctica during that region’s daylight hours.

A member of Apollo 17’s crew took the Blue Marble photograph
at 5:39 A.M. EST, with the sun lighting the whole perspective face of the earth.
(The day/night terminator was not in the frame.) As to what is specifically
visible in the frame, here’s the original NASA caption of the photo:

“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 east coast of Africa
is the Republic of Madagascar. The Asian mainland is on the horizon toward the

The caption makes no mention of the original orientation of
the photograph—indeed, reorienting photographs for more intuitive display is
hardly uncommon practice—but such are the makings of some highly focused Geek

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble comes from the November 23 edition of
Geek Trivia, “Early
bird special.”
TechRepublic member J. D. S. busted me for improper use of the term balance sheet.

“Although not an accountant by trade, I once supported
accounting (computer) systems, and took a fair share of classes. Although you
have the concept correct, rather than balance
, it would be better to say income
or profit/loss statement.

“A balance sheet is always balanced: assets =
liabilities + owners’ equity. An income or P/L statement shows: revenues –
expenses = profit (or loss).”

This is why my wife does the household finances, boys and
girls. Thanks for the lingo correction, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.