How the space age changed from being about space, to being about Earth.

No History Club this week; I’m getting vaccinated.

Had we met this week we’d have talked about Earth Day—which always makes me think of Earthrise, the photograph taken aboard Apollo 8 by William Anders on December 24, 1968.

Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell were the first humans to leave Earth orbit. In December 1968, they circumnavigated the moon and emerged to see an astonishing sight:

“It was the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer home-sickness surging through me. It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was either black or white but not the Earth.”

That’s how Frank Borman described our planet, an exquisite blue sphere hanging in the blackness of space.

In a telecast on Christmas Eve, the three astronauts sent images of the lunar surface back to Earth while reciting lines from the Book of Genesis. The crew did six television programs from space, two from lunar orbit. Many people were afraid something would go wrong and they wouldn’t come home.

Scholar Sibylle Machat has studied the Apollo 8 mission and what the astronauts have said about it. At the outset, they were lunar-focused. But seeing how bleak and dead the moon was made them realize how special and fragile the Earth was. “We were going to the moon—but what happened was we saw the Earth.”

The photograph taken by Anders ran in major weekly magazines in early January 1969. The Sunday Denver Post wrote:

“No man ever before has looked at the world in one piece and told us about it. Perhaps with a new understanding will come reverence for our planetary home and for the uniqueness of life.”

The Los Angeles Times wrote:

“In retrospect, a remarkable effect of the Apollo 8 moon voyage was not so much its capacity to draw men’s gaze outward, as its powerful force in turning their thoughts inward on their own condition and that of their troubled planet. The feat that should have been the perfect object for extroverts made introverts of us all.”

And the Christian Science Monitor wrote:

“We should cherish our home planet. Men must conserve the Earth’s resources. They must protect their planetary environment from spreading pollution. They have no other sanctuary in the solar system. This perhaps is the most pertinent message for all of us that the astronauts bring back from the moon.”

Historians have argued that, in retrospect, December 1968 marked the point when the space age shifted from being about space to being about the Earth. To see the Earth as a fragile, borderless dot amid the vast darkness of space helped us realize we could not take our environment for granted. It galvanized a growing environmental movement, and as Machat says, Earthrise remains “one of the two most significant photographs in connection with the environment movement that has ever been taken—if not the most significant.”

Less than two years later, in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was created and Earth Day inaugurated. At the first Earth Day celebrations, many in attendance held signs with the Earthrise photo.

What does it mean for us to all share the same planet and planetary fate? Since 1968 we have been able to ask that question with more clarity. Yet with each Earth Day that passes, we have yet to come to a consensus on the answer.

Have a good week.

P.S. - I met Sibylle at the Library of Congress in 2015 where she was researching a book on how the Earth had been depicted in children’s books. Watch her lecture on the subject and read my blog post about her research.

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