“Earthrise” That is the name given to this iconic picture. The picture wasn’t supposed to be taken. On Christmas Eve 1968 the first manned mission to the moon, Apollo 8, entered into lunar orbit. It circled out of sight behind the moon, and for the first time humans saw the dark side of the moon. As the spacecraft swung out of the darkness and into sunlight, astronaut William Anders was looking down, taking pictures of potential landing sites on the lunar surface. Suddenly he glanced up and saw the earth rising up over the surface of the moon. “Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty!”, he exclaimed. So he began taking pictures of the sight, even though it wasn’t on their busy schedule.
It was a perspective of the earth never before seen. There was the beautiful blue earth shrouded in white clouds and suspended over the barren gray surface of the moon. Behind it was the inky blackness of empty space. Command pilot Jim Lovell said “The vast loneliness is awe inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on earth.” It gave us a new perspective of our fragile planet and became one of the most famous photographs ever taken. When I was a graduate student, I hung that picture in my study room to give me inspiration as I struggled to memorize biochemical pathways.
The picture was taken a little over 50 years ago on Christmas Eve. The awe of the sight and the significance of the night came together. The astronauts held a live broadcast in which they showed pictures of the earth and the moon as seen from the spacecraft. They closed the broadcast by reading the creation account in Genesis 1, which starts out “In the beginning, God …”. On that Christmas Eve the creation account was read from the orbit of the moon to the people on the beautiful planet below.
In 1969 the Postal Service issued a stamp to commemorate the event. It had the picture of Earthrise with the words “In the beginning God …” imprinted across the middle. Some people filed lawsuits over the words Other people demanded the stamp be reissued without the words. The postage stamp controversy reflected a greater question. We can send people to the moon to photograph wondrous things, but what is the significance of these things? Is there a sacredness in them or not?
In some ways the Earthrise picture encapsulates the purpose of this blog. We want to explore nature in all its beauty, complexity, and ambiguity We want to marvel at it, wonder at it, and experience joy in it. And we want to ponder the question, “Is there an imprint with the words ‘In the beginning, God …’ across all of it?” Or not.