Smile for a Christmas Eve
There have been a lot of firsts in human history, but on Christmas Eve, 1968, there was a first that was, quite literally, out of this world.
While Apollo 11, with the “one small step for man” heroics, gets most of the attention in our history books and public remembrances, it was the Apollo 8 mission that was the first to take humans away from low Earth orbit, and thus provide a perspective on our home planet that no human being had ever seen, or felt, before.
The mission spanned the Christmas holiday. It launched on December 21, and the astronauts - Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders - splashed down back on Earth on December 27. Their greatest distance from our little planet was more than 234,000 miles, insignificant in the vastness of space but meaningful for our humble species. They saw the far side of the moon. They took a lot of pictures of craters. All that was planned.
What was not planned was “Earthrise,” perhaps the most famous picture ever taken from space. Also unanticipated, according to the astronauts themselves, were the spiritual and emotional journeys that led to that moment, and the feelings that followed. These feelings were not limited to those on the spacecraft. Many millions of us would back home on Earth would come to feel them as well when we saw this breathtaking picture.
(The following is an excerpt from our book What Unites Us)
This image, so peaceful and yet so breathtaking, was taken at the end of a turbulent year. It was Christmas Eve 1968, but from up there you would never know that a hot war was raging in Vietnam or that a Cold War was dividing Europe. You wouldn’t know of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Bobby Kennedy. From that distance, people are invisible, and so are cities, countries, and national boundaries. All that separates us ethnically, culturally, politically, and spiritually is absent from the image. What we see is one fragile planet making its way across the vastness of space.
There was something about that photograph that struck deep into the souls of many people about our place in the heavens, and a year later it appeared on a postage stamp (six cents at the time) with the caption “In the beginning God . . .”
The photograph is also widely credited with galvanizing a movement to protect our planet. Over the course of the 1960s, people increasingly spoke of a Spaceship Earth, a notion eloquently voiced by United States ambassador Adlai Stevenson in a speech he gave to the United Nations in 1965. “We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.” With the Earthrise photograph, suddenly Spaceship Earth was no longer a metaphor. It was there for all of us to see.
The entire story of the mission and the photograph is captured in a marvelous short film that we share here as well. We think it will make for some thought-provoking Christmas viewing.
We hope these recollections and reflections have brought a smile to your face this holiday season.
Take care. And let us take care, together, of our fragile home.