Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Earthrise: How We First Saw Ourselves
By Robert Poole

Yale University Press

On Christmas Eve forty years ago, Frank Borman looked out the window and saw something no human had ever seen before. He saw the Earth rise.

At the time Borman was in a space capsule, with the first crew to orbit the Moon. They were on the dark side, in their fourth orbit of looking down at shades of gray on the lunar surface, set against the black of space. And then suddenly, the blue and white Earth dawned over the edge of the Moon. Apollo 8 astronauts Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders scrambled to take pictures through the small window with their hand-held cameras. Anders color photo became the iconic image dubbed “Earthrise,” splashed across magazine pages and posterized on classroom and dorm room walls all over the world.

Those who’ve grown up with this image (and the later full-Earth portraits) may not realize that “What does the Earth really look like?” was a mystery for thousands of years. We had photos of Mars long before a picture of our own planet. Philosophers, poets, visionaries and a few visionary scientists suggested how profound such an image might be, as Poole recounts.

Plato tried to imagine seeing the earth from high above, and envisioned a planet of bright colors. This fantasy viewpoint suggested philosophical conclusions: Romans like Cicero and Lucian pictured the puniness of earthly empires in the immensity of space, while Seneca saw the ridiculousness of “the boundaries set by mortals.” Medieval thinkers saw Earth as insignificant among greater planets (“Contrary to popular myth,” Poole writes, “the world was not widely believed in the Middle Ages to be flat…”), while 16th century artists emphasized the Earth’s grandeur. In more recent times, 1930s social reformer David Lasser thought the sight would end racial divisions, and in 1951 astronomer Fred Hoyle was among those who thought it would expose the futility of war and nationalism.

While universal peace and brotherhood did not immediately ensue when Earthrise became a spectacularly popular image, Poole believes it did have important impact. It contributed to the power of new metaphors, from Spaceship Earth to Gaia, which changed attitudes, however slow and subtly.

Yet NASA hadn’t given much priority to such a photo. “We had been trained to look at the Moon,” said Anders. “We hadn’t been trained to look at the Earth.”
But later it was that first view of Earthrise that these astronauts remembered most clearly: the Earth in the context of space, the whole Earth with all the visible color and life in one fragile body.

This fascinating little book packs a lot of provocative cultural history in 200 pages. It looks back before the Apollo missions and at how the Earthrise and subsequent photos of Earth from space fit into cultural changes, and may well have helped prompt and form them.

The Apollo program is itself worth remembering. Its spaceflights lasted a mere four years (1968 to 1972): 11 missions, nine voyages to the Moon and six moon landings. While Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon in Apollo 11 is best remembered, Apollo 8 was the most significant and the most awe-inspiring of the era. It was the first time a spacecraft left Earth orbit, traveled that far into space, and the first to orbit the Moon. It performed a number of complex technical achievements for the first time, requiring split-second timing: all with an on-board computer that was “tiny in comparison with modern pocket calculators.” The details of this mission are astounding, and full of amazing ironies.

For instance, it wasn't supposed to go to the Moon. Apollo 8 was scheduled to orbit the Earth and test aspects of the lunar lander, attached to the main spacecraft. Only the lander wasn't ready when Apollo 8 was--and there were rumors the Russians might be ready to orbit the Moon first. So Apollo 8 became a mission to orbit the Moon but not land. In a strange way, it was this fact that led to the Earthrise photo. If the lunar lander had been attached, the astronauts view of the Earthrise would have been blocked. They wouldn't have seen it, or photographed it.

Cultural history, especially in the popular press, has tended to be pretty cynical about Apollo and about President Kennedy, whose challenge to send astronauts to the Moon and return them before the 1960s ended was its impetus. It was all about the Cold War has become the conventional wisdom. But Poole rightly points out that there were always elements of the transcendent. "Kennedy's goal was not simply to beat the Russians, or even to appear to be racing them, "Poole writes, " but to do something spectacular to rise above it all." It was Apollo's success, Poole suggests, that led to international cooperation in space, and to the 1967 treaty that declared space off-limits to weaponry.

But for NASA, looking back at the Earth was mostly an afterthought--and the surprise was that it led to a lot of thought afterwards, beginning with the astronauts. Their view of their home planet remained the most persistent memory for many, and for some it was transformative. 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."

The Earthrise photo had some of the same influence. 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."

Poole fits Earthrise and the astronauts into the heady 60s and 70s, along with Bucky Fuller and Stewart Brand (The Whole Earth Catalog), the 80s of Carl Sagan and the Gaia theory of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. Poole rightly reminds us that the Earthrise photo (and the “Blue Marble” whole Earth photo of 1972) gave visual support and impetus to holistic thinking and the ecology movement that blossomed in that period, leading to a certain credibility for some sense of Gaia: the planet as an interdependent organism. “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.”

That this was not Apollo’s purpose makes it all the more powerful. This book is (he writes) “the story of how the mightiest shot in the Cold War turned into the twentieth century’s ultimate utopian moment.”

Poole writes persuasively and mostly well. The only factual error I caught was attributing John XXXIII's landmark encyclical "Pacem in Terris" to another pope, and otherwise totally forgetting this most unforgettable leader of the early 60s.

Poole finds these space missions fascinating, but dismisses the possibility of finding other life out there. "Humankind now appears to be both the product and the custodian of the only island of intelligent life in the knowable universe," he writes. Whether that's true or not, his conclusions is apt: "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."

After Apollo, no one has gone where no one had gone before , and NASA seems to be in a confused state. But the study of the Earth from space became one of their priorities in the 90s, and that's likely to continue in the Obama administration. While the new president is a Star Trek fan, he is also committed to addressing the Climate Crisis, and NASA is likely to be recruited for that mission.

Poole quotes Apollo astronaut Michael Collins as noting that as his space capsule turned, he looked both into space and back at Earth. “We saw both,” he told Congress, “and I think that is what our nation must do.”

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