Two Self-Portraits (of planet Earth)

Earthrise, photographed by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on December 24th, 1968.

Just before the holidays, I had the opportunity to do a little driveway stargazing with a guest from Syria. His hometown is just outside the city of Homs, actually, and if you read or listen to just a little news you know his people are going through a very, very hard time. Getting shot in the streets kind of hard. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the suffering in his homeland, he is excited about any new experience, and he had never looked through a telescope before. We did a quick tour (it was very cold!), stopping at Jupiter, the Andromeda galaxy, and ending with the moon. It was the last thing that dropped his jaw. It turns out Muslims also use God’s name when amazed by something, but it’s an incantation of appreciation and wonder.

We had him back over for dinner on Christmas Eve. He had never experienced an American Christmas before. Actually, to a large extent, he still hasn’t…most of my household’s traditions come from Slovakia. When we gathered near the tree after the long “Dinner of Many Courses” (sliced apple, oblatky with nuts, garlic and honey, sauerkraut soup, fried chicken and potato salad and the cavalcade of cookies), our guest was surprised to find a gift waiting for him. It was a print I had made of the famous “Earthrise” image taken by Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968. I think he was touched.

That photograph is very significant. Though not the first photograph of the planet from space (I wrote about that image in this post) it was the most viewed and appreciated. Galen Rowell, the eminent nature photographer, called  Earthrise “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” The first Earth Day was celebrated the following year, and now everyone had an image to keep in mind. Bill Anders, the Apollo 8 astronaut who took the photograph, later reflected: “I instantly thought it was ironic; we had come all this way to study the moon, and yet it was this view of the Earth that was one of the most important events for Apollo 8.”

Anders continued: “There are basically two messages that came to me. One of them is that the planet is quite fragile. It reminded me of a Christmas tree ornament. But the other message to me, and I don’t think this one has really sunk in yet, is that the Earth is really small. We’re not the center of the universe; we’re way out in left field on a tiny dust mote, but it is our home and we need to take care of it.”

Flash forward four decades to another photograph, this one from August, 2011, snapped by the Juno spacecraft, 6 million miles into its journey to the planet Jupiter. Juno is an robotic spacecraft, so we can’t ask the photographer directed for comments. It gives perspective to our perspective. The earth is not just small. It’s really small. And please, people, for now, it’s all we’ve got.

Juno's photograph of earth and the moon. If the earth was a peppercorn, the moon would be a pinhead about an index finger's length away. Mars, our aspirational next destination for manned exploration, would be about 14 yards away.

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