Awe-inspiring photos of the Earth from space in honor of World Environment Day

Our swiftly tilting planet

Earth from space
Earth rotating at night.NASA

Close your eyes and picture what the Earth looks like.

You’re probably picturing a circle, mostly blue thanks to the ocean, with swirls of clouds and the occasional green and brown land mass. The entire sphere is floating in a mass of impossible black. You’re picturing Earth in a way that you’ve never actually seen with your own two eyes. Maybe you're getting the sketch from this famous shot, below, known as the blue marble image. Astronauts aboard the Apollo 17 space mission snapped the picture on December 7th, 1972. Countless other images of our home planet have been taken, which have forever shaped our imagination of it. Still, only a handful of humans have seen it with naked eyes.

Almost without exception, those humans (mostly astronauts), say the experience of seeing the Earth from outer space profoundly changes who they are as a person. It makes the Earth feel more precious, they say, our human grievances seem pettier, and the environmental damages we are causing to the planet, graver. Today is World Environment Day, or what the United Nation’s calls the "people’s day" for doing something to take care of the Earth. But in order for us to take care of the Earth, we first have to remember why the Earth matters. And what better way to do so than a gallery of stunning images of the Earth from the outside combined with words that encapsulate the perspective of those who have had the fortune to see the planet first hand from this unique perspective. Enjoy.

blue marble Earth image
The famous "blue marble" photo of the Earth. The Apollo 17 crew took this image en route to the moon.NASA

As we got further and further away, it [the Earth] diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.

- James B. Irwin, Apollo 15 Astronaut

bruce mccandless shot of the Earth
On February 12, 1984 astronaut Bruce McCandless used a nitrogen jet propelled backpack to venture further away from his space ship than any astronaut had before. He took this photo in the process.NASA

Looking outward to the blackness of space, sprinkled with the glory of a universe of lights, I saw majesty—but no welcome. Below was a welcoming planet. There, contained in the thin, moving, incredibly fragile shell of the biosphere is everything that is dear to you, all the human drama and comedy. That's where life is; that's were all the good stuff is.

- Loren Acton, Physicist and Space Shuttle Astronaut

shot of the Earth from the LRO spacecraft
NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) recently captured a unique view of Earth from the spacecraft's vantage point in orbit around the moon.NASA

The scenery was very beautiful. But I did not see the Great Wall.

- Yang Liwei, China's First Astronaut

first manned mission to the moon
Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968. That evening, the astronauts—Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders—held a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft.NASA

The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.

- Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 Astronaut

Earth from the ISS
NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Expedition 37 flight engineer, enjoys the view of Earth from the windows in the Cupola of the International Space Station. A blue and white part of Earth is visible through the windows.NASA

The world itself looks cleaner and so much more beautiful. Maybe we can make it that way—the way God intended it to be—by giving everybody that new perspective from out in space.

- Roger B Chaffee, NASA Astronaut

Americas at night from space
This composite image derived from MODIS instrument land surface and cloud cover products provide the clearest view year of the patterns of human settlement across the planet. This is a view of the Americas at night.NASA

When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change. You look down there and you can't imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don't even see them. There you are -- hundreds of people in the Mideast killing each other over some imaginary line that you're not even aware of, and that you can't see.

- Russell Schweickart, Apollo 9 astronaut

India-Pakistan border at night
Photo of the India-Pakistan Border at night taken by a member of the Expedition 45 crew on the International Space Station.NASA
Earth and the moon
An image of Earth and the moon, acquired on October 3, 2007, by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.NASA

The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.

- Aleksei Leonov, Russian Cosmonaut

phytoplankton bloom from space
A picture of a natural phytoplankton bloom in the North Atlantic taken by NASA's Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite.NASA

We have this connection to Earth. I mean, it’s our home. And I don’t know how you can come back and not, in some way, be changed. It may be subtle. You see differences in different people in their general response when they come back from space. But I think, collectively, everybody has that emblazoned on their memories, the way the planet looks. You can’t take that lightly.

- Nicole Stott, shuttle/ISS astronaut

moon crossing the Earth
An image of the moon crossing in front of the full sunlit disk of Earth caught by NASA's Earth Polycromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) onboard NOAA's Deep Space Climate Observatory.NASA

It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.

- Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 Astronaut

air pollution in China seen from space
Image of air pollution recorded over China in 2014 recorded by NASA's Terra satellite.NASA

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.'

- Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut