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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Seeing Our Planet, Finding Ourselves

Air Date: Week of

Earth, seen for the first time by human eyes from space, taken by Astronaut Bill Anders. (Courtesy of NASA)

Astronauts saw their home planet from space for the first time forty years ago, and the picture of a round, blue, whole Earth has been a source of reflection – and revelation - ever since. Robert Poole, author of the new book "Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth" tells host Steve Curwood how the picture was captured and how it's changed history.


CURWOOD: On December 21st, 40 years ago, three men boarded a spaceship and became the first humans to fly to the dark side of the moon.

[SOUND OF TAKEOFF, “3 - 2 – 1”]

CURWOOD: Three days later, the Apollo 8 crew - Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders, also became the first earthlings to orbit a celestial body - a big step towards delivering on the pledge of President Kennedy to put a man on the moon.

But what the world most remembers about Apollo 8 is the image the crew brought home, as for the very first time humans saw and photographed Earth from space....rising blue, round, and small, over the moon's horizon. Historian Robert Poole of the University of Cumbria in the U.K. is the author of the new book, “Earth Rise: How Man First Saw the Earth."

POOLE: What was most exciting about the moon missions wasn’t what was most significant in the longer term. I mean we now know that the moon is a dead rock and we know it has a common geological history with the earth. But what’s really remained with us is the vision of the whole earth. I mean it’s quite difficult now to go back to the 1960s to a time when nobody had seen the earth. It was an immensely powerful sight, to see the earth, to see our home, whole and complete. And to see all of mankind in the frame at once, apart from the three guys behind the camera. That’s quite a thought.

Robert Poole.

CURWOOD: So this is a picture of the earth. It’s taken over the lunar horizon. Tell me the story of how they get this color photograph. I gather it was quite a scramble there in the lunar capsule.

POOLE: Rather extraordinarily. The Earth rising over the moon took them by surprise. They had anticipated it in a general kind of way, but they were so busy with all the various tasks that they had to do, they were orbiting the moon for the first three times, what they called sort of general interest photos were right at the bottom of the list, and amongst those they said, oh, we might get one or two good views of the earth. Just before they got into radio contact they saw the earth rising over the lunar horizon.

CURWOOD: Not only were the astronauts aboard Apollo 8 not scheduled to take this shot, they weren’t scheduled to go to the moon as I understand it.

POOLE: No. Originally Apollo 8 was supposed to test the lunar lander in earth orbit. But the problem was the lunar lander was quite a complex bit of equipment and it wasn’t ready in time, and so NASA took this really very dangerous decision to send Apollo 8 all the way to the moon. They said well, if we can’t test the lunar lander, why don’t we test actually going to the moon. So they had an unplanned mission, which was to go to the moon, to orbit the moon, to survey the back on the moon and to come back and to test the Apollo rocket all up, all five million parts at one go with humans on board. I don’t think health and safety people would allow a risk like that to be taken these days. It was a risk, the astronauts were willing to take it, and the fact that they got there safely and then saw the earth, they saw home sort of beckoning them and pulling at them made it all the more dramatic when the earth actually came over the lunar horizon.

CURWOOD: Now what role did Richard Underwood, the trainer of the astronauts in photography, what role did he play in getting this picture?

POOLE: A very important one. I mean he should go down in history really as the man who photographed the earth. Because Underwood briefed the astronauts and he said to them, look, all this data that you gather is going to end up in some dusty library. What will live on is the pictures, I want you to take some great pictures of the earth for me. But as far as the official mission plan was concerned, these were bottom order snaps, the lowest priority.

CURWOOD: It’s said that they went to the moon and discovered the earth on this mission, that Astronaut Frank Borman said that this must be what God sees?

POOLE: Yes as he was leaving the earth, he looked back and the astronauts remembered, We could see the earth start to shrink. Nobody had seen the whole earth. Satellites has seen parts of it, even all of it, but it didn’t have the same impact as actually seeing the earth shrinking out of your window. And Borman was a deeply religious man and his thought was, this must be what God sees. And so the astronauts felt that they’d been given really quite a special view - of the creation I guess, and this in turn influenced what they decided to say when they actually broadcasted the earth from orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve.

Earth, as seen for the first time by human eyes from space, taken by Astronaut Bill Anders. (Courtesy of NASA)

BORMAN: We are now approaching lunar sunrise and for all the people back on earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

POOLE: They chose in advance to read the creation story from the Bible.

BORMAN: In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters and God said let there be light. And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.

POOLE: It took us almost outside of the human side of the space program, back to basics. This was almost earth seen at the moment of creation.

BORMAN: And from the crew of Apollo we close with goodnight, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth.

CURWOOD: And this is an ultimate kind of spiritual, profound experience. What happened to these men as a function of seeing the earth rise?

POOLE: Well, if you look back at the history of the astronauts, those who were mostly profoundly affected by looking back at the earth, were those who had the most time, those who were orbiting the moon waiting for the other astronauts to come up, or those who were in the less busy seat. And we’ve had some quite profound meditations from astronauts, you can see in the film “In the Shadow of the Moon” that came out last year, some of them talking about how happy they are now to be back down on the earth. One of them says its like being in the Garden of Eden. I think about that every day.

[ASTRONAUTS IN THE MOVIE “IN THE SHADOW OF THE EARTH”: I felt that I was literally standing on God’s front porch…. I can remember thinking my God, that little thing is so fragile out there….That jewel of earth was just hung up in the blackness of space.]

CURWOOD: Now the first Earth Day takes place what about 15 months later after Apollo 8, in 1970. What role do you think the earthrise played in the first Earth Day?

POOLE: Well it’s absolutely immediate. John McConnell who’s a peace and internationalist activist sees the Apollo 8 photograph of the earth floating in space and asks NASA for a copy of it, which they’re very pleased to supply. And he has it printed on a flag, which he calls the earth flag, and in July of 1969 McConnell distributes 50 of these flags, and they’re small pennants, showing the earth to the people at the moon watch, watching the Apollo 11 landings. And later has the idea of having an Earth Day, a day to celebrate the earth, to look after the earth. It’s a kind of – it’s the first environmental festival. And it’s soon followed by another version of Earth Day, which is planned by Senator Gaylord Nelson over on the east coast. And Earth Day has been on American calendars every since.

CURWOOD: Right now the world is busy trying to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto accord to combat climate change. As you look back at the change in the consciousness in our civilization with this picture, what role do you think it might play in the ongoing negotiations to perhaps save the world from, well, climate disruption and destruction?

POOLE: I think it’s already played the role because climate scientists, and in particular James Lovelock who came up with the Gaia theory, the idea that the earth is kind of a limited, self regulating mechanism - they now understand the earth as a complete set of complex systems, and that if you change anything that happens in one of those systems in a major way, other things will happen as well. Global warming is simply common sense from this point of view. Scientists could understand that in a technical way, but ordinary people could understand it when they saw the earth, when they saw that outside the earth there was nothing. Everything that goes on on the earth happens inside this very small atmosphere, this very thin skin that’s no more that the thickness than a peel or an apple. When you can see the earth as complete and whole on its own, you understand that it is one system, that if you do start to change it, to pollute it, to spoil it, to damage it, the earth itself will start to change because there’s nothing but immense blackness for a vast distance outside it. So when we see the earth, we understand that it’s an integrated whole and that it needs to be approached as a whole in order to, well, keep it as a viable environment for human beings.

CURWOOD: Robert Poole, thank you so much for taking this time with me today.

POOLE: Thank you very much. It’s been good to talk to you.

Robert Poole’s new book is called, “Earth Rise: How Man First Saw the Earth."



For more pictures and information, check out the Earthrise website


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