“Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled,” Frank Borman said, joking to his fellow Apollo 8 astronauts, Bill Anders and James Lovell, on Dec. 24, 1968. They were orbiting the moon, farther from Earth than any humans had ever been. On the fourth pass, they were confronted by an extraordinary sight that jolted them out of their regimented procedures. There, seen through a small window, was Earth itself, rising out of the void.
For a split second, the astronauts were dazzled by the luminescent blue sphere, whorled by a white cloud cover. Then, as they were trained to do, they went back to work. As it turned out, Mr. Anders was the one who snapped a color photo, just after his fellow astronauts, Frank Borman and James Lovell, called his attention to the greatest photo op in history.
The color film proved to be the key; a similar photo had been taken two years earlier, but without the dazzling blue. When the photo was republished on the cover of Life magazine, and beamed out on America’s color TVs, billions of others had to same chance to look back at Earth in all its cerulean glory.
That this life-giving place was the same thing as Creation was a message the astronauts reinforced on the same day, with their reading from the Book of Genesis. At the end of a bitterly divisive year, it was a rare chance, unscheduled, for all of the inhabitants of the planet to remember that they were united by factors beyond their control. Evangelicals, scientists, Americans, Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese: All people on Earth marveled that it was possible. The mission was a miracle, and so was the planet that hovered there, above the tiny spacecraft.
The study of Earth had been far from the minds of NASA’s architects at the beginning of the space program; the whole point was to escape it. But as the astronauts kept sailing deeper into the night, they could not help looking backward at the shrinking planet. In this film, Frank Borman compares it to the size of his thumbnail.
A great deal of earth science has come from that discovery; perhaps self-discovery is a better phrase. NASA’s spacecraft and their cameras have helped to locate ancient monuments and crop circles covered by forest canopies; oil leaks in the oceans; the disappearing Aral Sea; crazy weather, shrinking glaciers and other signs of a planet that has changed a great deal since 1968.
Largely for that reason, many of the budgets for earth science, including NASA’s, are in danger of being slashed by government officials who are uncomfortable with the science that the cameras reveal. The astronauts were braver; they accepted all of the information, terrifying or miraculous as it might be, that confronted them. Their courage continues to light a way forward.
Sadly, NASA is one of the agencies affected by the government shutdown. About 95 percent of its employees will not be able to work until its funding is restored. High-priority missions will continue, including a close encounter with a distant object called Ultima Thule, scheduled for 33 minutes past midnight on New Year’s Eve. But the longer the impasse continues, the worse it will be for a program that depends on normal politics for its remarkable science.
For millenniums, humans had wondered what it might be like to look back at themselves from a great distance. As this gallery shows, it was a universal human aspiration, uniting people from all parts of the world. To a surprising degree, many knew, or at least intuited, that Earth was a sphere, and not flat at all. Plato likened it to a leather ball made from a “patchwork of colors.” Around the time Christ was born, the Roman poet Ovid described the planet as “poised in the enveloping air, balanced by its own weight.” In other words, exactly as the astronauts saw it.
Flat-earthism has not entirely disappeared, despite the achievement of science, and sophisticated forms of denial still occlude the atmosphere. But as these images show, the planet was round all along, equally home to all of its inhabitants, unique and irreplaceable.
Ted Widmer is a distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York and a fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.