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Steward Brand, "Whole-Earth" Buttons, 1966

The first photograph of the whole earth from space.

Stewart Brand born 1938, studied biology at Stanford, design at the San Francisco Art Institute and photography at San Francisco state. He was originator and publisher of the "Whole Earth Catalog" and is the author of "How buildings learn: What happens after they are built", "The Media Lab: Inventing the future at MIT" and "The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility." Amongst others he is co-founder of The Long Now Foundation, The All Species Inventory, the Global Business Network and also interested in Indian-White relations. In 1984 he founded The WELL, (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) one of the first online communities of the world, in San Francisco.

Image: NASA
Cover of the "Whole Earth Catalog" in Autumn 1968, showing the first image of the whole planet earth.

Image: NASA
Cover of the "Whole Earth Catalog" in Autumn 1969, with the small, whole earth from a distance.

In the spring of 1966 Steward Brand sat on the roof terrace of his house overlooking San Francisco and became aware of what he thought was the curvature of the earth. This gave him the idea that from a further elevated point the whole earth would become visible and in an insight he realised that such a photograph might have a great impact on peoples perception of the world. Until then space flight had been around for about ten years but there still was no image available that was showing the whole earth.
Not that no images had appeared in the media at all, but these were either focusing on the spacecrafts or the astronauts but mostly about the moon. In 01966 an issue of LIFE magazine presented a Gemini mission and emphasised the altitude the image was taken at. It showed a segment of the earth with the curvature labelling it as the "Highest Photos Of Earth Taken By Man" 1 and as early as 01956 artist Richard Hamilton used a photograph of Earth patched together from several satellite images for the exhibition "This is tomorrow."2

Areas: Global awareness, global consciousness.

"Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?!"

After this insight Brand began to make buttons that displayed the question "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?!" He sent those buttons to senators and their assistants, to scientists and politicians in the Soviet Union and also sold them at the universities of Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard and MIT.
Brand later learned that astronomer Fred Hoyle's had speculated in a similar way almost twenty years earlier, that an image of the earth as a whole would have a huge impact upon peoples perception of the world. Hoyle reportedly stated, "Once a photograph from earth from outer space is seen, the humanity will never be the same."

Inspired by Buckminster Fuller's theories, Brand thought that once such an image was available showing the world without national borders and in its limitedness, this would create a consciousness of the scarcity of resources and singularity of its ecosystem. People living on islands were aware of this Brand had learnt from Buckminster Fuller.3 So once the image of the earth as a limited island would enter peoples minds their attitude regarding resources would change. Twenty years after Hoyle's comment this was one of the first attempts to create a sensitivity and awareness among people for a holistic overview of the earth and for a more global consciousness.

The first photograph of Earth from Space was taken by John Glenn on 01962.02.204 but it showed only part of the Earth, not the whole planet. Also there had been earlier images taken by automated cameras. At least one taken by a German V2 rocket that was launched from White Sands in 019465 in grainy black & white, and another image that was used by artist Richard Hamilton in his work "Just what is it ..." from 01956.

Today, as most people have this iconic image of the whole earth in mind, the famous "blue marble" image taken by Apollo 17 astronauts,6 it is difficult to imagine that in the sixties this did not yet exist! This new view of looking upon Earth is merely one generation old!
Not even within NASA was there any thought spent on photographs from outer space for a long time. "At the beginning of the program, no one knew for certain whether weightlessness would prevent a man from seeing, or from breathing, or from eating and swallowing. Photography was deemed nothing more than a recreational extra." The purpose of space flight was to prove that it was technically possible and to bring the astronauts back alive. All that with the challenge of reaching the moon while understanding how the human body reacted to zero gravity and acceleration. There were much more important issues on the minds of NASA's managers, technicians, test pilots and engineers. The purpose of the mission was to support a futurist vision towards the planets within a greater patriotic, militaristic and humanistic framework of proofing the superiority of the United States. Not the view back down upon earth and taking pictures.
The natural reaction, which seems inevitable and "logical" nowadays, the view back towards one's origin, to where one came from did not have any place in their mindset. Yet, two years later once these images were taken they immediately became icons and engrained themselves into the collective psyche of the civilisation of the western world leading to the ecology movement. Astronaut Eugene Cernan said in this context: "We went to explore the Moon, and in fact discovered the Earth."7

Very different to this "official" doctrine was the experience of the individual astronauts themselves. The astronauts reported two fundamentally different perceptions. Firstly, from a close orbit the earth would seem majestic and large - and the individuals in their space craft felt small. Secondly from a larger distance as the 200,000 miles to the moon, the earth itself appeared very small and vulnerable compared to the black and cold vastness of space.8 Frank White, then a member of the Space Studies Institute (SSI) in Princeton became aware of the astronauts reported moving and ineffable experiences of seeing the earth from an orbit and started interviewing them. This undertaking turned 1987 into the publication "The Overview Effect."9 There he concludes that for some people seeing our planet from above can result in a permanent change of perception of the world and Weltanschauung, an epiphanic moment of insight and transformation.

Since then, the public relations department of NASA have greatly improved their work and their communication relies on publishing images from space today to legitimate their expenditure; or as they say in the film "The Right Stuff": "No bucks–no Buck Rogers."

Quotes from astronauts:

"From the moon, the Earth is so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in that Universe, that you can block it out with your thumb. Then you realize that on that spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you - all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it right there on that little spot that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you've changed forever, that there is something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was." Rusty Schweickart, astronaut

"The first day we all pointed to our own countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth." Sultan bin Salman al-Saud, astronaut


During the last fifty years our view of the world has considerable changed. We gained an entirely new perspective upon our planet, cultures and resources. Where did this change of view originate from?

One reason could be insights gained through space flight and space photography.
From very humble beginnings space photography lead to an entirely new perspective of our planet.
A few visionaries had predicted this development namely philosopher/inventor Buckminster Fuller in 1923, astronomer Fred Hoyle in 1947 and later designer Stewart Brand in 1966.

Space photography, together with reports from astronauts led to this change in attitude. Their reports how deeply they were affected by looking "down" upon the earth and seeing her without boundaries and divisions and as a small, vulnerable sphere surrounded by a thin and delicate atmosphere. Since then every astronaut has had this experience and many have become politically active or got involved in environmental or spiritual movements, seeing themselves as ambassadors of global understanding.

Frank White interviewed astronauts about their experiences and coined the phrase "Overview Effect" which turned into a publication of the same name in 1987 (forty years after Hoyle statement!). White developed a rationale for a far-reaching framework of human evolution and space exploration. White's ideas are far stretched and will stay without relevance within the next decades. Especially not if we do not solve the current problems of pollution, over-population, inelegant waste of resources and erosion of precious soil. White's rationale supports space colonisation escapism which is detrimental for tackling these current affairs with the necessary urgency. First we have to learn how to treat this planet and its intricate, complex ecology with respect before we blight other planets or colonise space.

Steward Brand developed this sense of "overview" during 1966 the peak time of the Apollo program (1963-1972). His "Whole Earth" buttons can possibly be seen as the first trigger for the ecology movement and an common increased sense for global awareness and global consciousness.10


Stewart Brand in interviews:

"In 1966, in the spring I was selling buttons that said "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?!" with the idea of sort of encouraging after 10 years in space please getting photographs of the earth. And I sent one to Marshall McLuhan, I sent one to all of the Senators and all of their assistants and I sent one each to various people in the Soviet Union who where involved in politics and science.
And I sent one to Buckminster Fuller. And of all those people the only one who wrote back was Buckminster Fuller who said: "I am so sorry, you will not be able to get a photograph of the whole earth the best you will be able to do is to get a little less than half."
Sort of metaphorically patting me on the head. A few month's later he was doing a series in Esalen Institute down in Big Sur [...] and I was sitting across him at lunch and I pushed the button over to him and said "Why haven't we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?" "Oh, yes I wrote to the fellow." I said: "I'm that fellow." "What effect do you think it might have on people if they would see a photograph of the whole earth from space?" And behind these coke-bottle glasses there was one big slow blink, and he said: "How can I help?" [...]
Corn:"A follow up on one of the little effects there, I was so surprised to learn in your most recent book that, I think it was the astronomer Fred Hoyle who as early as 1947 had speculated on what the impact would be of a photograph of not the whole earth but a little less then half of the Earth would be.
Brand:"I wish I had know about it, because I admired Fred Hoyle from a distance and never got the original cite. Actually that would be something worth tracking down. Altman? referred to him in 1947 "once a photograph from earth from outer space is seen, the humanity will never be the same". He was dead on, miles ahead of me."
Transcript of part of an interview with Stewart Brand conducted by Joseph Corn for the Buckminster Fuller lectures at Stanford University, February 27, 2002

Bruce Mau: Why was this image so powerful?
Brand: "It was motivating for a lot of people, I think, because it gave the sense that Earth is an island, surrounded by a lot of inhospitable space. And it's so graphic, this little blue, white, green and brown jewel-like icon amongst a quite featureless black vacuum. Islands know about limitations. Bucky led me to this notion. He said people still think the earth is flat because they act as if its resources are infinite. But that photograph showed otherwise. Unless and until we find other flourishing planets, this is all we've got and we've got to make it work. There's no back up."

Brand: "The planet seeing itself from the outside was a major self-realization of its existence as a planet, as a beautiful thing, as a kind of fragile appearing thing. It is clearly alive. Photographs with the moon in the foreground are like, emotionally dramatize the difference between a dead planet and a living planet. It's not hard to imagine, well, you know, a living planet can become a dead planet unless steps are taken. This photograph, this is spring 1969, a year later, spring 1970 you have the first Earth Day, and the real taking off of the ecology movement, which did not exist as a movement before that time."

NASA statement about their historical view regarding photography:

"At the beginning of the space program hardly anyone thought of photographs from space as anything more than a branch of industrial photography. There were pictures of the spaceships, and launches, and of astronauts in training, but these were all pictures taken on the ground.
When John Glenn became the first American in orbit, bringing a camera was an afterthought. An Ansco Autoset 35mm camera, manufactured by Minolta, was purchased in a local drug store and hastily modified so the astronaut could use it more easily while in his pressure suit. At the time, everything that John Glenn did was deemed an experiment. At the beginning of the program, no one knew for certain whether weightlessness would prevent a man from seeing, or from breathing, or from eating and swallowing. Photography was deemed nothing more than a recreational extra.
Not only was little expected of those first pictures taken from space, but there was serious concern that taking pictures of other nations from orbit would be seen as an act of ill will and even one of war, as sovereign and sensitive nations might resent having pictures taken from orbit."


1) Gemini Mission: Highest Photo of Earth Taken By Man: from 01966.08.05

2) Richard Hamilton's photomontage was called "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?" and is considered the first work of Pop-Art. (Thanks to Dr. Peter Walters, Bristol, UWE.)

3) Fuller writes in "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth" about his perception growing up on Bear Island in Maine (where the family spent their Summers) and about his time in the Navy.
People on islands ... Jared Diamond describes the perception and decisions that people on islands face eloquently in his book 'Collapse' especially his examples of Polynesia and Greenland speak for themselves.

4) The Film "The Right Stuff" by Philip Kaufman gives a very good insight into the tough macho atmosphere of the early days of space flight. Providing this context makes the neglect of photography very understandable. One is actually surprised when John Glenn draws his Minolta to take pictures.;jsessionid=3tirm2fcd9gse?id=S62-06021&orgid=8

5) My guess is that the very first image from space was shot 1946 from a German V2 missile fired from White Sands. Find a documentation here:
A panorama made of several photographs from a V2 fired from White Sands, allegedly from July 1948:

6) The genesis of the famous Blue Marble image has been investigated thoroughly by Eric Hartwell at
Image of earth taken by Apollo 8: AS8-16-2606 12/01/1968
this image would later become the cover for Stewart Brand's "Whole Earth Catalog"
And an Apollo 17 picture: AS17-148-22727 12/07/1972

7) Krausse, Joachim ed. (1998), "R. Buckminster Fuller: Bedienungsanleitung für das Raumschiff Erde und andere Schriften," Fundus Vlg. Dresden contains a brilliant essay (in German only) on exactely the same topic as this page: the blue marble view.

8) Robin McKie in The Observer, Sunday November 30 2008 A very thorough description of the events partly in astronauts own words.

9) Frank White (1987), "The Overview Effect Space Exploration and Human Evolution", Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston

10) Stewart Brand, "Why Haven't We Seen the Whole Earth Yet?," in The Sixties: The Decade Remembered Now, By The People Who Lived it Then, ed. Linda Obst (New York: Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1977), p.168.
See also, Stewart Brand, "The Earth from Space," Rolling Stone, 15 May 2003, p.124; and Vicki Goldberg (1993), Power of Photography, p.54.
Button image: An account of the events by Stewart Brand himself at the Long Now Foundation:
or an extensive sketch on Stewart Brand and his activities at the Guardian,3605,531898,00.html

Nathan Zeldes has also created an interesting page on this topic, "The impact of Apollo 8 on our planetary self-image." It contains illustrations of comics from the fifties and it is quite amazing to see what artists then expected to see.

Juliette Jowit interviewed astronauts for The Guardian on 02008/12/20: "How astronauts went to the Moon and ended up discovering planet Earth"

Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 4 astronaut is quoted saying: "You develop an instant global consciousness, ..."

Life Magazine, January 10th, 1969; The Incredible Year '68, Special Issue
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Although the edition of LIFE magazine shows the earth on its cover the article itself is solely about the Apollo 8 mission around the dark side of the moon and does not bother to mention the spectacular image at all! It appears there was a latency between writing the text and deciding for the cover image to represent the "incredible year 1968." Mainstream media between an old paradigm and a new ...

last update: 8/29/02011 1:35

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