The Story of Blue Marble Images, Part 2

See Part 1 one here: “The Story of the Blue Marble.”

In 2003, I had time to visit the Johnson Space Center. The Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, is most famous as the control center for all the Apollo missions to the moon. (Remember “Houston we have a problem” from the movie Apollo 13?) But as I toured the Houston Space Center (Space and Science Exploration Learning Center) in 2003, I stopped in awe at an actual Apollo command module that had taken three astronauts to the moon and back. Ninety-nine percent of the 366 ft Apollo rocket, as well as the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), either burns up or is left at the Moon. This is the one piece of original hardware that comes back. When I saw that it was the Apollo 17 command module, I knew that the iconic Apollo Blue Marble photo was taken through one of the windows in the capsule before me.

Figure 16: Harrison Schmitt, Blue Marble Photographer, Last Man to Walk on the Moon (NASA Photos)

I was anxious to hear the story behind the photo. I had heard that Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt had taken the photo and I tried to reach him by phone. No luck! So, I sent him the following email in September of 2003:

Dear Harrison;

How did you come to take the (Blue Marble) picture?

Which window was it taken from? I have photos of your capsule from Space Center Houston.

Have you or your crew written anything about it?



A short time later, I was thrilled to hear back from Harrison, who responded to my email line by line as follows:

How did you come to take the (Blue Marble) picture?

I had planned to test global weather observation and forecasting by a live observer during the three days it took to get to the moon. . . I filled many pages of transcripts and took many more pictures than this as the Earth rotated beneath us for (those) three days . . .

Which window was it taken from? I have photos of your capsule from Space Center Houston.

This picture was taken out of the circular hatch window after the Earth ceased to fully fill the frame of that window.

Have you or your crew written anything about it?

The (September) 1973 National Geographic has a piece as does a 1994 Smithsonian Book Where Next, Columbus? edited by Valerie Neal. . . . .

Harrison Schmitt on the Moon: A geologist’s most important discovery.

Figure 17: Houston Space Center — Apollo 17 Command Module (Photo by Fritz Hasler)

Only recently as I was writing this did I finally search the local libraries to find the articles in 1973 and 1994 written by Harrison describing his trip to the Moon and his three days exploring the surface. However, there was nothing in these articles about taking the Blue Marble image. I also purchased a copy of Where Next, Columbus?

So, I reached out to Harrison again. As busy as he is completing the documentation of his three days as the only trained geologist to ever explore the Moon, I was again thrilled that he was willing to take the time to tell me the story behind the Blue Marble image as related in the text above.

Schmitt’s fellow crewmate, Ron Evans, died in 1990, and his commander, Gene Cernan, died in 2017, leaving Schmitt as the only member of the crew still alive. Of the 12 men who walked on the Moon, only 4 are still living as of November 2021. Schmitt and Charles Duke of Apollo 16 are the youngest at age 85. David Scott of Apollo 15 is 88. And Neil Armstrong’s crewmate on Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin, is 91.

On one of those three incredible days on the Moon observing its geology and collecting samples while bouncing around the moon and squirting across the surface in his electric dune buggy, Harrison noticed some orange material in sharp contrast to the grey dust that covered almost everything. On returning to Earth, the analysis of the material revealed it to consist of millions of very small brown-orange glass spheres. These are now thought to represent pyroclastic volcanic activity (“fire fountains”) that occurred about 3.5 billion years ago. Schmitt believes that the Moon was formed (by accretion) near Earth’s orbit — not by a Mars-sized object impacting the Earth. The orange volcanic ash found on the Moon makes it unlikely that the Moon was formed by a giant impact. Schmitt calls it the most important finding from Apollo 17.

Apollo 15, 16, and 17 astronauts had the advantage of driving battery-electric lunar rovers (Moon Buggies), which enabled them to cover much more ground than they could do on foot. They were particularly advantageous for taking samples in diverse locations.

The Apollo Blue Marble remains to this day one of the most famous and most viewed pictures of all time. However, it had a problem! It didn’t show the parts of the Earth where most Westerners live. At my lab at NASA, I set out to correct this deficiency for residents of the Western Hemisphere.

Figure 20: First Goddard Western Hemisphere Blue Marble, 1992 (Goddard Lab for Atmospheres)

Unfortunately, the only GOES weather satellite images that I had were cut off on top and bottom and were only in black and white. I used the Photoshop blur tool to crudely attach a new top and bottom from another GEO image to make a perfectly circular Earth disk. My NASA Lab colleagues helped me assign colors to the visible and infrared channels of the GOES 7 image. These were the first high-quality color images of the Western Hemisphere. It was a simple technique, where we used: The visible channel for white clouds and assigned colors to the IR thermal channel as follows: Orange — warm desert, Green — cooler vegetation, Blue — “coolest” ocean.  Credits to Hal Pierce, K. Palaniappan, Mike Manyin, Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, and myself.

Figure 21A: GOES 7 Blue Marble, 1994 (Goddard Lab for Atmospheres)

In 1994, we used the same technique using an image from GOES 9 which brought South America into full view. Credits to Dennis Chesters, Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, and myself.

Figure 21B: GOES 8 Blue Marble, 1994 (Goddard Lab for Atmospheres)

Figure 22: Apple iBook Ad using our NASA Goddard Blue Marble, 1999 (Apple Inc.)

These images were very popular and were used frequently in the print media and for advertising. Apple has used our images of the globe for decades now.

Figure 23: NASA GSFC Blue Marble Using Multiple Datasets, 2000 (Goddard Lab for Atmospheres). Credits to: Reto Stockli, Alan Nelson, Marit Jentoft-Nilsen, Jesse Allen, Dennis Chesters, and myself.

In 2000, at my lab at NASA, we made the first high-quality Western Hemisphere Blue Marble image using multiple data sources (Figure 23). We also caught the moon in the image.

1) The cloud data and the image of the moon were collected by a NOAA-GOES 8. 

2) The ocean data were collected by the NASA SeaWiFS.

3) The land image is a depiction of NDVI from the NOAA-AVHRR instrument.

4) The topography was derived using a Digital Elevation Model produced by the US Geological Survey.

Figure 24: Previous Figure Cropped (Goddard Lab for Atmospheres)

The Best Blue Marble Ever

Next is a Western Hemisphere Blue Marble image featuring North America, with the sub-satellite point over Central Mexico. It comes from several days of Terra MODIS data and one day of cloud data from two GOES satellites.

It was made by Reto Stockli, who I had brought from Switzerland to my Visualization and Analysis Lab (VAL) at NASA first in 1998. It has been used as the background screen for billions of iPods, iPhones, and iPads as well as for countless other applications! Because of its extreme high quality and focus on North America, it has perhaps superseded the Apollo Blue Marble as the most viewed image of the Earth, at least for residents of North and Central America. 

In 1997, Reto Stockli was a graduate student in Zurich, Switzerland, who came to my attention when he bombarded me with many examples of his visualization efforts on the new Internet. I brought him to Goddard for an internship in 1998. I proposed to him that he make a Western Hemisphere version of the Apollo Blue Marble using the best available data from any satellites.

Before long, I was surprised to learn that Reto’s 6-month internship had ended and that he had to go back to Switzerland. Reto had made good progress, but still had a long way to go. I offered to loan him the latest graphics mini super-computer, an SGI Inc. O2, so that he could continue the work. Reto set it up in his parents’ basement in Zurich and went to work. Over the next two years, he increased his mastery of massive datasets. He continued to work with Goddard visualizers and exchanged data with NASA by FedExing hard drives back and forth across the Atlantic. He stitched together a seamless cloud-free mosaic from multiple days of Terra MODIS data, added the clouds back in from multiple GEO weather satellite images and rendered the final products with the desired sub-satellite points. Two of his masterpieces are shown here in Figures 25 and 26.

With seamless computer mosaics of Terra satellite data and global cloud data from Geosynchronous Weather Satellites, Reto Stockli and Rob Simmons could render a Blue Marble image with any given sub-satellite point. In this image above, the SSP is in Turkey, with the European continent as the central focus. With the snow cover over the Alps, Scandinavia, northeastern Europe, and northern Russia, you can see that it is the winter season.

Figure 27A: The Terra Satellite Launched in December 1999 (Goddard Lab for Atmospheres)

From these images taken by Terra, Reto Stockli made the land portion of the “Best Blue Marble Ever.”

Zoom to Salt Lake City & Site of 2002 Winter Olympics

Below is the first frame of a zoom by the Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio to the 2002 Winter Olympics, which was shown on the Jumbotron in Rice Eccles Stadium during the opening and closing ceremonies.

The 720 × 480 version of the zoom, starting out in space and zooming into the site of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, can be downloaded from the Hasler History/Blue Marble Blog via this link.

The Gateway outdoor shopping mall in downtown Salt Lake City was only 90% complete at the time of the Winter Olympics in February of 2002. The unfinished rooms of the future Children’s Museum of Utah were made available to us for a NASA Earth Science Exhibition Venue. In the foyer, we installed a giant balloon with the Terra data map of the whole Earth printed on the outside. In one room, we had another giant Terra global data map printed on the floor. On the wall was a giant map of the US derived from Landsat data. Children were invited to make drawings of their interpretations of Earth Science images and data which were posted on another wall. In another room we presented the NASA/NOAA Earth Science Electronic Theater about 20 times during the Winter Games to audiences of up to 100 people. The screen was 60 ft × 40 ft and took up an entire wall. We used our Onyx mini super-computer to generate the displays and had the loan of a $100,000 three-gun Barco professional video projector for our presentations.

GOES 16 Ushers in a New Era in Geosynchronous Weather Satellites

November 19, 2016, NOAA launched GOES 16. From small beginnings 50 years ago, over 45 geosynchronous weather satellites have been launched by many countries: US 18, Europe 10, Japan 8, India 9.


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