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Small Blue Planet
The impact of Apollo 8 on our planetary self-image
The Apollo mission that history
will remember is the eleventh: “One Small Step for man, one giant leap for
Mankind”. But a more significant leap for humanity happened, in my opinion, in an
earlier mission: Apollo 8, the first to leave Earth orbit in 1968
and go around our moon. It was from that mission that the astronauts
brought back, for the first time, photographs like the one at the right. In it, floating
serenely in a pitch-black sky, a small but vivid blue-white
half-globe: the image we all associate with our home world.
Now we do, that is. Until 1968, the Earth looked quite different; or at any rate, its inhabitants thought it did.
I got my first hint of this fact while
looking at an old school
copybook on display in a used book stall in the flea market of
Palermo, Italy. It, too, shows the earth as seen from the moon.
Behind the heroic astronaut on his nifty lunar roadster, framed
against a blue (!) lunar sky, we see a huge, dominating orb, green
continents outlined against a greenish-blue ocean, and not a cloud
in its sky.
Later it occurred to me to check my collection of old children’s books, and the same image kept showing up: a green/brown/light blue planet, its familiar continents perfectly visible under a cloudless sky. Sometimes a few clouds are thrown in, but they are small, fleecy parallel streaks, isolated and insignificant. The most prominent feature of the earth as seen from space was missing: the massive white swirls of the global cloud formations we see daily during the weather report. And the fact that the night side of the Earth is invisible against the black of space was also lost on those artists -- despite the very visible example of our own moon’s phases. They all drew the Earth as an oversized terrestrial globe!
Here, then, are some more examples of our planet as seen in pre-Apollo artist
renditions from around the world:
The Apollo 8 pictures set the record
straight: no artist would ever draw a cloudless Earth again. But their true significance is
that they suddenly put in perspective the fact that our seemingly
endless, flat, solid world is not only round, not only far from
center of the universe, but it is also small, vulnerable, outright improbable in this
barren corner of a hostile universe. Even the continents that we so
proudly inhabit are barely visible from space. Humanity, that
self-styled "crown of creation", was at last forced to feel a
a little humility -- and an appreciation of how lucky we are to have
this planet at all. The Apollo photographs had forced us to replace
our age-old arrogance with the humbler mindset that was to become central to the environmentalist
Lastly, here (below, left) is the oldest picture in this batch: The Earth/Moon system, from “L'Enciclopedia dei Ragazzi”, an Italian children’s encyclopedia from around 1900 that I inherited from my grandmother. Once again it shows the large, cloudless Earth in much exaggerated continental relief.
And to the right, the true image of this system, sent back by the Galileo spacecraft on December 22, 1992 (Apollo never went out far enough to capture both bodies at once). On the left, the moon, a lifeless ball of dead rock. And on the right, there, utterly unmistakable, our home. Unmistakable, because no human alive would fail to recognize the Earth by its rare hallmarks: a small blue planet, half shadow, half cloud swirls, embedded like a precious jewel in the black infinite void. Our fragile home world, the way it really is -– the way Apollo 8 taught us to see it.
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