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Earthrise classic

It was exactly forty years ago, on Christmas Eve of 1968, when millions of Americans watched a television show live from the Moon.  Three U.S. astronauts—Bill Anders, Frank Borman and James Lovell were the first humans to go beyond Earth orbit and escape Earth’s gravitational influence, to circle another world.

They described the oppressive gray emptiness of the Moon’s surface below them, as viewers saw slowly rolling gray video images of what they were talking about.  Then the astronauts read the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis, and sent holiday greetings to the people of "the good Earth." More U.S. viewers watched this broadcast than any TV program of any kind before, and eventually an estimated one fourth of the world’s population saw it.

But the event of December 24, 1968 with the most lasting impact happened when no one was watching—when the astronauts were cut off from communication on the dark side of the Moon.  

The Apollo 8 mission was to just orbit the Moon, not land. The astronauts had been concentrating on the lunar surface, when Frank Borman caught a glimpse of color on the gray horizon, a conspicuous glow of blue and white against the black sky.  It was the Earth.  While he excitedly snapped photos in black and white, Bill Anders loaded his camera with color film, and got the shot that became historic.  We know it as "Earthrise."

According to Robert Poole’s fascinating new book, Earthrise: How We First Saw Ourselves (Yale University Press), the idea of photographing the Earth was foreign to NASA’s ethos and sense of the Apollo mission.  NASA wasn’t interested in where the astronauts were coming from but in where were going: into space, to the Moon. Only the stubbornness of a few individuals, especially Apollo’s photography chief, Richard Underwood (who emerges as a hero in Poole’s book) led to the photos we do have.

The engineers and mission planners snubbed earth photos as "touristy snap shots," and astronauts often didn’t see the point of them.  Until they got out there.  Then, as several admitted, seeing their home planet whole became the most memorable aspect of the voyage.  That response to seeing it was true from the start.  "How beautiful our Earth is!" exclaimed Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.  

But it was the Earthrise photo that became a spectacularly popular image—splashed across magazine pages, and posterized for posterity and dorm room walls.  Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders later suggested that it caused people to "realize that we’re all jammed together on one really kind of dinky little planet, and we better treat it and ourselves better, or we’re not going to be here very long."

Italy pollution NASA

Photo: Pollution over Italy.  All photos are NASA, public domain.

Forty years later, that Earth has changed.  Twice as many people live on its surface.  The pictures from space show more gray and brown in the white clouds—evidence of more widespread pollution.  "The brilliant, clear photos were the Gemini photos of the mid-60s," Richard Underwood observed.  "The air pollution was a lot less then, and it shows."

Some of the evidence of global heating is also obvious from space.  Noting that the later and at least equally famous full-face "Blue Marble" photo taken from the Moon’s surface in December 1972 during the last Apollo mission showed the "relatively undeveloped southern hemisphere," Poole points out that its view of the Antarctic in winter already looks different.

"Humankind now appears to be both the product and the custodian of the only island of intelligent life in the knowable universe," Poole writes.  "Whether that vision has been timely enough, and powerful enough, for homo sapiens, the most successful of all invasive species, to reverse its own devouring impact on the Earth, will probably become apparent before too long."    

Blue Marble earth NASA

Blue Marble: photo from the Moon's surface taken during last Apollo mission in December 1972.

Forty years later, the Apollo program (and its 11 missions, nine voyages to the Moon and six moon landings in just four years) seems like a dream.  With budget cuts, management problems and controversies,  unfunded missions and the planned end of the Space Shuttle, NASA faces an unpromising and uncertain future.

 But even with the election of Barack Obama, a NASA supporter who recently suggested he wants to have "lectures in the White House where people are talking about traveling to the stars," there is a sense that NASA’s future is not only in exploring space, but in once again looking earthward.

In 1990, on the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day, NASA announced its fifteen year program called "Mission to Planet Earth," for earth observation satellites.  That could be the beginning of a commitment, not the end.  

A by former NASA Johnson Space Center director George Abbey and former Clinton Science Advisor Neal Lane on "How to Save the U.S. Space Program" suggested that earth observations be restated as a top priority for NASA, and that coordination with other earth sciences agencies be strengthened.

One prominent reason for this mission is the Climate Crisis—a harrowing possibility known mostly by a few scientists and science-fiction writers in 1968, but now the most dangerous example of the planet’s life being seriously altered by human activity.  As the federal government gets serious about addressing it, more detailed knowledge is needed about what’s actually going on in the atmosphere and on the planet’s surface.  Some of that information is best gathered from space.

It’s a mission NASA is aware of, and may now be eager to take on.  After all, America’s most respected scientist on the Climate Crisis (and next to Al Gore, the number one target for climate crisis deniers) is NASA’s own James A. Hansen.  His own post-election statement minces no words: "Now our planet itself is in peril.  Not simply the Earth, but the fate of all its species, including humanity."  
But even under the recalcitrant Bush administration, NASA was already engaging in this work, with an upcoming mission specifically related to the Climate Crisis.  Scheduled for January launch, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory will be its first spacecraft dedicated to studying the chief greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.  NASA satellites have also recently measured changes in Arctic sea ice and Alaskan glaciers.

Earthrise black and white

Frank Borman's black and white Earthrise: December 24, 1968.

Many of the Apollo astronauts returned to Earth not only with a new interest in ecology, but with a sense of urgency. Gene Cernan, the last man to stand on the Moon, felt "My destiny was to be not only an explorer, but a messenger from outer space, an apostle for the future."  Michael Collins returned determined "that I would do all I could to let people know what  wonderful home we have—before it is too late."  Edgar Mitchell thought about "beneath the blue and white atmosphere was a growing chaos...that population and conscienceless technology were growing rapidly way out of control."

While universal peace and brotherhood did not immediately ensue after Apollo, Poole believes the Earthrise photo had important impact as a symbol for a new consciousness of the home planet that has changed attitudes, however slowly and subtly. It contributed to the power of new metaphors, from Spaceship Earth to Gaia, that guide our understanding and our resolve.

"The sight of the whole Earth, small, alive, and alone, caused scientific and philosophical thought to shift away from the assumption that the Earth was a fixed environment, unalterably given to humankind," Poole concludes, "and towards a model of the Earth as an evolving environment, conditioned by life and alterable by human activity."  

Beginning with Earthrise, these images of the Earth from space have contributed to a more widespread sense of the Earth’s fragile status as the one known live world, and as the only Earth we’ve got. But the urgency remains, and grows.  

Though the Earth Blue Marble photo became even more iconic than the Apollo 8 image, there is a particular poignancy to Earthrise, because the planet is not all there.  Some of it had not "risen" yet, but visually the missing portion suggests how fragile this life-bearing vessel is.  Amidst the immense emptiness between the far-flung fires of stars, it could just as easily be setting, or dissolving life by life, leaving only another gray globe in the cold and darkness.  

It’s up to us. We are the future we have been waiting for.

Originally posted to Captain Future on Wed Dec 24, 2008 at 04:42 AM PST.

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