By Bill McKibben, Reader Supported News
8 December 18
Nineteen sixty-eight was a crazy year, its events moving at a horrific pace. The Tet Offensive. The My Lai Massacre. Bobby Kennedy announcing the news that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. Riots across urban America and outside the Democratic National Convention. The human drama seemed out of control in a way it hasn’t in the years since ― till now, of course.
Which is why it’s both heartening and sad to think of the event that brought 1968 to a close and opened a new set of possibilities. Apollo 8 was orbiting the moon, its astronauts busy photographing landing zones for future missions. On the fourth orbit, Commander Frank Borman needed a navigational fix and decided to roll the craft away from the moon, tilting its windows toward the horizon. The shift gave him a sudden view of the Earth rising.
“Oh, my God,” he said. “Here’s the Earth coming up.”
Crew member Bill Anders turned the camera away from its lunar chores and pointed it homeward, snapping what may be the most iconic image ever taken. Borman said later that it was “the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me. It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was simply black or white. But not the Earth.”
Back on Earth, the seeds of the modern environmental movement had already been planted. Rachel Carson had written Silent Spring earlier in the decade, beginning the process of wiping some of the shine off modernity. David Brower had led the Sierra Club through the great fight to save the Grand Canyon, turning it in the process into the first great green group. And soon there would be a major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, and the Cuyahoga River would burst into flames. People were beginning to realize that there were limits to the abuse nature could take at the hands of growth.
But suddenly those limits were visible. Everything we had was there before us: a blue-and-white shimmering egg hanging in the monochrome void. You could see it aswirl with the motion of clouds, gloriously alive in the midst of the endless vacuum.
When we think of the Apollo missions, we often herald NASA’s accomplishments as technical. We put a man in orbit, and then we landed more on the moon. And yet one of the most important achievements of the decades of space exploration was artistic — this one photograph taken 50 years ago this month that showed us nothing about the rest of the galaxy and everything about our home.
It explained, I think, the tenor of the first Earth Day, which followed about 15 months later. Organized as a “national environmental teach-in” by Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson and Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey, the day used an image of Earth from space as its unofficial flag. The event drew 20 million Americans into the streets ― a tenth of the population at the time, probably the largest day of political action in American history.