Today’s guest post comes from Peter Wheeler of the Nature Conservancy. Taking leave of this planet, to gain a new perspective on our planet, Wheeler gives us a moment of pause to reflect on the iconic Earth-rise photo that was taken during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968. While filing through the many issues that concern us here on earth, this legendary photo altered are perception of the planet by showing us what it looked like from afar. Here is an apt moment to reconsider this image, our planet, our role upon it, and how Earth Matters from an entirely different vantage point.
The Dark Side of the Moon
“In 1968 Apollo 8 went to the moon…”
What more exciting first line of a story could there be for any earth dweller? To boldly go… three men aboard, among our billions, setting off on the ultimate adventure. Only 11 years after the first man ever, Yuri Gagarin, escaped the earth’s gravitational field briefly to orbit the earth, just once.
Think of that. What were you doing in April 2002, just 11 years ago? Imagine the progress! On the day they went, a HP12-C pocket calculator cost more than $500 which in real terms (today’s money) would be almost $3,500. The total computing power on board the Command Module was less than what you have today in your smart phone. At number 3 in the UK music charts was I’m an Urban Spaceman by the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah band. Earlier in that year, 1968, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Richard Nixon had just defeated Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election, but Lyndon Johnson still occupied the White House; the War in Vietnam was in full swing, as was the resistance movement, boiling over into the Summer of Love.
And yet these three were going to travel over a quarter of a million miles to circumnavigate the moon, just to show that it could be done. And to prepare the way for the ultimate Giant Step For Mankind, taken by Buzz Aldrin three missions and just nineteen months later on July 20th 1969 . Three years after that, Pink Floyd would release their best-selling album, The Dark Side of the Moon, opening propitiously with the ringing of cash registers over a jumpy bass guitar line, ‘Money…’
Then this happened: after circumnavigating the moon, being the first men to see for themselves the dark side of the moon, that cold desolate monochrome place, those same three men saw something quite remarkable, more remarkable even than the lunar landscape they were flying over. They saw earth, rising above the stark atmosphere-less horizon, not a full earth but a waxing earth, half in light, half in shadow, but beautiful, blue green and white. Our planet. Earth-Rise.
Wiliam Anders took this photograph on December 24th, 1968.
The film made of this event is stunning. The impact of the image seen for the first time comes across in the joyous outburst by the crew. Even at mission control in Houston, engineers gazed amazed at their monitors.
Back in 1948, the British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle predicted that when spaceflight enabled us to see the whole Earth from space, the view would change us forever. He was right.
I saw this film first, projected onto a huge screen erected in the Rajasthan desert, on September 23rd 2013. With around 100 others, I saw it beneath the stars and, yes, the moon. In the 45 years since that amazing moment, many of us were experiencing it for the first time. No man has trodden on the moon since 1971, so we can safely assume that going there is of no great import. What clearly was of great import was seeing Earth this way for the first time.
Four years before the Apollo 8 mission, Adlai Stevenson addressing the UN had used these words,
“We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave—to the ancient enemies of man—half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all…”
Now ‘Spaceship Earth’ really meant something.
The second time I saw this film, I was sitting in the ballroom at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill in DC among 240 trustees of The Nature Conservancy, and the film was introduced by Colonel Ron Garan, a retired US Airforce Pilot and NASA Astronaut, who had participated along with two Russian Cosmonauts on the 50th anniversary mission on a Soyuz TMA-21 launch vehicle spending 13 months on the International Space Station.
When Anders took his famous Earth Rise photograph, Garan was 7 years old.