remembering apollo 8’s iconic earthrise photo

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In 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first ever humans to leave the cozy confines of Earth orbit. From Wikipedia:

The three-astronaut crew — Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders — became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit; see Earth as a whole planet; enter the gravity well of another celestial body (Earth’s moon); orbit another celestial body (Earth’s moon); directly see the far side of the Moon with their own eyes; witness an Earthrise; escape the gravity of another celestial body (Earth’s moon); and re-enter the gravitational well of Earth.

That’s a substantial list of firsts. But before setting out on the mission, neither the crew or anyone else at NASA gave much thought to perhaps the most significant and long-lasting achievements on that list: “see Earth as a whole planet” and “witness an Earthrise”. In this gem of a short film by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, Anders, Borman, and Lovell recall what it was like for them to be the first of only 24 people to see, with their own eyes, the Earth from that distance, a blue marble hanging in the inky blackness of space.

What they should have sent was poets, because I don’t think we captured the grandeur of what we’d seen.

The day after Apollo 8 orbited the Moon, a poem by Archibald Macleish published on the front page of the NY Times tried to capture that grandeur: Riders on Earth Together, Brothers in Eternal Cold.

Men’s conception of themselves and of each other has always depended on their notion of the earth. When the earth was the World — all the world there was — and the stars were lights in Dante’s heaven, and the ground beneath men’s feet roofed Hell, they saw themselves as creatures at the center of the universe, the sole, particular concern of God — and from that high place they ruled and killed and conquered as they pleased.

And when, centuries later, the earth was no longer the World but a small, wet spinning planet in the solar system of a minor star off at the edge of an inconsiderable galaxy in the immeasurable distances of space — when Dante’s heaven had disappeared and there was no Hell (at least no Hell beneath the feet) — men began to see themselves not as God-directed actors at the center of a noble drama, but as helpless victims of a senseless farce where all the rest were helpless victims also and millions could be killed in world-wide wars or in blasted cities or in concentration camps without a thought or reason but the reason — if we call it one — of force.

Now, in the last few hours, the notion may have changed again. For the first time in all of time men have seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depth of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small as even Dante — that “first imagination of Christendom” — had never dreamed of seeing it; as the Twentieth Century philosophers of absurdity and despair were incapable of guessing that it might be seen. And seeing it so, one question came to the minds of those who looked at it. “Is it inhabited?” they said to each other and laughed — and then they did not laugh. What came to their minds a hundred thousand miles and more into space — “half way to the moon” they put it — what came to their minds was the life on that little, lonely, floating planet; that tiny raft in the enormous, empty night. “Is it inhabited?”

The medieval notion of the earth put man at the center of everything. The nuclear notion of the earth put him nowhere — beyond the range of reason even — lost in absurdity and war. This latest notion may have other consequences. Formed as it was in the minds of heroic voyagers who were also men, it may remake our image of mankind. No longer that preposterous figure at the center, no longer that degraded and degrading victim off at the margins of reality and blind with blood, man may at last become himself.
To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.