Let Earthrise Remind Us How Lucky We Are to Live On Earth
Apollo 11: the most famous of the numerous Apollo missions. “The Eagle has landed”: a plain remark that represented a momentous achievement. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins: the biggest legends of the Space Race.
My dad was eight years old when the U.S. reached the Moon. Like many kids his age, the Space Race captivated him. He remembers July 20th, 1969, like it was yesterday.
I wish I, like my dad, could have watched Neil Armstrong take one giant step for man and one giant leap for mankind in real time. But there’s another Apollo mission I appreciate a tad more: Apollo 8.
That mission was probably the most important in the history of the Space Race. As Steve Dent of Engadget described: “The 1968 Apollo 8 mission was crucial in the race to get a man on the moon. It was the first manned launch of the colossal Saturn V rocket, which had only flown twice before in unmanned test missions. It was also the first manned spacecraft to escape Earth’s gravity, reach another celestial body, and orbit it.”
Translation: it was a big fucking deal.
As the mission orbited the moon on December 24th, 1968, commander Frank Borman (flying with Bill Anders and Jim Lovell) turned the command module on its fourth orbit and took a black-and-white photo as Earth appeared on the horizon. But Anders felt the visual warranted color photography. The dialogue was captured for posterity:
Anders: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.
Borman: (Joking) Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.
Anders: (laughs) You got a color film, Jim?
Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…
Lovell: Oh man, that’s great!
Anders took a few photos to make sure he had a jewel. When the men touched down back home on December 27th, NASA chief of photography Dick Underwood got his hands on their rolls of film. NASA took great care to develop the seven rolls and 865 frames of film.
The result will stand the test of time. We call it Earthrise. I call it my favorite photograph.
Why Earthrise Is My Favorite Photograph:
Earthrise was not the first photo taken of Earth from lunar orbit. The first American spacecraft to orbit the Moon — Lunar Orbiter 1 — produced a similar black-and-white image. But that image was not nearly as breathtaking as the visual of a tiny blue dot surrounded by an endless expanse of darkness.
If you can’t remember the Space Race, it might be hard to imagine the transformative impact of seeing Earth from space. I was born a quarter-century later, so I won’t pretend to know either. I’ll leave it to the experts…and the man who took the photo.
From The School Of Life: “Earthrise allowed us to feel a kind of care, even love, for the planet. Viewed from space, we see it protected from terrific bombardments of meteorites and solar and cosmic rays, and made habitable, only by an infinitesimally thin membrane — which it is now wholly in our remit to destroy. Our oxygen rich atmosphere — the difference between a barren desert planet like Mars, and our lush, abundant, breathable home — appears in the photo as the vaguest of halos. From up here, it is possible to feel so much more generous towards the human project than we normally do. We can smile gently at humanity and perhaps admire it a little too. Everyone’s faults drop away against such majesty. We are tugged towards being more patient and warm around our fellow ants spinning with us in endless darkness. We might like to tell one or two of these ants in franker, more direct terms how fond we are of them.”
In Life’s 100 Photographs that Changed the World, wilderness photographer Galen Rowell called Earthrise “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” The photo’s significance didn’t immediately sink in, but NASA put it on a stamp, and Time and Life magazine highlighted Earthrise as an era-defining image, as The Guardian recounted two years ago.
“It gained this iconic status,” Anders said. “People realized that we lived on this fragile planet and that we needed to take care of it.”
The years following Earthrise were some of the most environmentally impactful in human history. In the US alone, the EPA was formed; Earth Day began; the NEPA, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act were all signed. Less than four years after Earthrise, the United Nations held a Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the first world conference to make the environment a major issue.
Two years ago, Anders reflected on the Apollo 8 mission and the iconic photo he took as its fiftieth anniversary approached. You can find his delightful writing here.
In the absence of inspirational, uplifting global reminders of our common humanity and the preciousness of the place we call home, we ought to keep the spirit of Earthrise alive. We haven’t fully appreciated the gift of life on Earth, and if we fail to shape up in due time and continue to take that gift for granted, we might never again get the chance to fully appreciate it.
As The School Of Life noted, it is wholly in our remit to destroy the atmosphere, much more so now than in 1968. Most of the greenhouse gases we’ve emitted into that thin atmosphere have been emitted after Earthrise was taken.
But we don’t have to wreck this planet. The Earth is worth fighting for. It’s a wonderful place, the only home we’ve ever known and the only home we’ll ever need.
We are so lucky to live on it. Let’s start acting like it.