This April 22nd, we celebrate Earth Day for the 50th time. I think we can take some pride in remembering that Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson founded the first Earth Day in the United States in 1970. And I think it’s no mere coincidence that this happened during a time when humans first voyaged to the Moon and looked back at the Earth. The view from afar raised ecological awareness.
As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Apollo, I find myself considering what it all meant. It was a dangerous and costly undertaking to land men on the Moon and return them safely before the decade was out. Yet there were benefits. It was a competition with the Soviets that did not involve warheads. There were technological spin-offs.such as GPS and communications satellites. A generation was inspired to pursue careers in science and engineering. The rocks and regolith brought back revealed an amazing story of the origin of the Earth and Moon. Maybe most importantly, humans saw our planet for the first time.
Even though the mission of Apollo was to explore the Moon, I am moved by how often the astronauts looked homeward. The crew of Apollo 8 (the first mission to the Moon) took the memorable picture of Earthrise on Christmas Eve 1968 as they orbited around from the far side of the Moon. Four years later, the crew of Apollo 17 (the last mission to the Moon), took a photo of the whole Earth remembered as “The Blue Marble”. In 1969, Neil Armstrong (the first human to walk on another world), took a moment from a very busy schedule to look up at our planet high overhead above the Sea of Tranquility. He found that he could easily cover it with his thumb. Asked later if this made him feel like a giant, he said it made him feel very small. Time and again, astronauts returned to tell us how very fragile and awesome the Earth appeared from afar. And how it needed to be protected for all mankind.
We continue to look homeward with our robotic explorers. Our rovers on Mars send back photos of Earth in the pink Martian sky. I remember July 2013 when so many of use waved at Cassini in orbit around Saturn as it took a global selfie from a billion miles away. On Valentine’s Day 1990, as Voyager 1 was journeying out of the Solar System, it turned its cameras to capture a photo of Earth in the vastness of space that filled less than a pixel. To Carl Sagan, it “underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Sometimes I see a parallel between Project Apollo and the many effigy mounds here in the Driftless. We may never know why they were constructed, but we do know their builders invested considerable labor in creating them. I have heard speculation that maybe they were inspired by charismatic leaders seeking to affirm the identity of a people and their place in the cosmos–they were mound builders living between the Earth below and the sky above. And maybe that’s the legacy of Apollo and one of the things to be remembered about a very challenging twentieth century. Maybe we are moonwalkers and Earthgazers. Maybe we journeyed a long way to discover a unique and precious Earth inhabited by humans with common origins and a shared future of caring for one planet.
John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador and the International Astronomical Union as a Dark Sky Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.