On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, on 20 July 1969, Subhuti puts the space race in historic perspective and comments on the significance of the photo of the earth taken from Apollo 8, the first manned circumnavigation of the moon, on 21 December 1968.
The newspapers and television channels are full of it: fifty years ago, the first man stepped onto the surface of the Moon. As we all know, when American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the Lunar Landing Module, he said it was “one small step for man.”
Then, of course, he also hailed it as “one giant leap for mankind.”
Watching the 50th anniversary celebrations, I am struck by a collective tendency to overlook the greatest achievement of those moon voyages. It had nothing to do with landing on the moon. It had everything to do with the planet on which we live.
And it was an accident.
In fact, by the time the Apollo 11 spacecraft sent the Lunar Module flying down towards the Moon’s surface, the most significant moment had already happened. Six months before the landing, in December 1968, another Apollo spacecraft carrying three American astronauts became the first manned spaceship to leave Earth orbit, travel to the Moon and return.
On reaching the Moon, the craft went into orbit and flew around the dark side. Then, as the craft re-emerged, the astronauts watched their first “Earthrise” as their home planet rose up over the horizon. It was such a stunning sight that astronaut Bill Anders immediately grabbed his camera and started clicking.
When the pictures on his camera film were brought back to Earth, developed and printed, they caught us by surprise and touched our hearts.
For the first time, we were able to look at this beautiful orb on which we live.
For the first time, we were confronted with the wonder of a living, breathing biosphere, floating in a vast and infinite ocean of darkness.
There had been pictures taken earlier, from spacecraft orbiting the Earth, but those were too close to show the whole planet. Nothing like this had ever been seen before.
Looking back at ourselves was an unintended spinoff from the American space program. The drive behind NASA’s mission to reach the Moon had nothing to do with such noble, cosmic visions. It was born out of human conflict: a legacy from Nazi Germany, World War II and America’s deep fear of the Soviet Union.
At the end of the war, Werner von Braun, the scientist who had developed Germany’s military V2 rocket, could have been prosecuted as a war criminal. Instead, he was spirited away to the United States, where, with hundreds of other newly-imported German scientists, he was put to work developing ballistic missiles, all pointing at the Soviet Union.
The world’s leading powers had realized that rockets were the future, especially in terms of delivering nuclear weapons swiftly, accurately and devastatingly. But America’s politicians were in for a shock. In October 1957, tiny bleeping signals from “Sputnik” announced that the Russians had a rocket which could leave the Earth’s atmosphere and put a satellite into orbit around the planet.
One year later, the Soviets sent up another rocket with a dog inside. Her name was Laika. She died within hours, but proved that a living being could survive launch pressures and exist in space conditions.
Four years after that, in April 1961, came the biggest shock of all: Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to travel in space.
The reality hit America’s leaders hard: they were losing the space race, losing international prestige and possibly losing a space-based weapons race as well. Perhaps, too, on a deeper level, they felt there was something humiliating, even immoral, about a bunch of godless communists getting the jump on their all-American blend of capitalism and Christianity.
Newly-elected president John F Kennedy resolved to reverse the trend. In May 1961, just one month after Gagarin’s flight, Kennedy addressed the US Congress, proposing that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
The American people weren’t so sure. According to polls taken after Kennedy’s speech, nearly 60 percent of the public were opposed to it, because of the enormous expense involved. But it happened anyway, due largely to the spectre of Soviet supremacy in space.
So, this was the political backdrop against which Apollo 8 had flown toward the Moon. The total focus of NASA’s mission was on beating the Russians, getting there, landing there and bringing astronauts safely home. Nobody at NASA had even considered what it might mean, having reached the goal, to look back at Planet Earth.
This attitude, in a way, provided a neat metaphor for every human being’s approach to spiritual growth: We’re usually so busy looking outwards – where we’re going, what we’re doing – that we rarely pause to look within and discover inner space.
Anyway, this particular mission, Apollo 8, had been given the task of circling the moon, observing its geography and identifying suitable sites for a future landing. So, the astronauts needed a high-resolution camera to take detailed pictures of the moon’s surface. But when Bill Anders saw the Earth coming up over the moon’s horizon, he didn’t hesitate. This was the “photo opportunity” of a lifetime – maybe of all time.
Fortunately, his camera was equally good at taking pictures of his home planet, a quarter of a million miles away, as it was snapping the rocky terrain below. More photos came, of course, the following year, after the landing itself, when the astronauts could photograph the Earth from the moon’s surface.
And so they gave us a gift: For the first time, we were able to look upon ourselves and our home from afar, and feel a new kind of love and respect for our planet.
Of course, human nature being what it is, the outward drive to “conquer space” continues: Now there’s talk of creating sustainable human colonies on the moon and perhaps even on Mars. No doubt, many interesting discoveries will be made. But for me, space exploration has already achieved its greatest triumph, because nothing is likely to compare with the impact of those first photos of Earth.
The “giant leap for mankind” wasn’t Neil Armstrong’s boot touching the lifeless surface of the moon, nor the promise of further exploration. It was the unexpected vision of our beautiful home and its uniqueness as the only known planet in the cosmos that supports life.
It was, and is, the implied understanding that we need to appreciate this planet of ours and take good care of it.
Related video: Astronauts on Seeing the Earth from Space – Mindblowing comments of astronauts about the way they experienced seeing the earth from outer space