Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Christmas in the Heavens 40 years ago
From today's New York Times editorial page:
Forty years ago today, the crew of Apollo 8 gave the planet what this page called “an ennobling Christmas present.” The astronauts — Frank Borman, James A. Lovell Jr. and William A. Anders — orbited the Moon, beaming pictures home in two live broadcasts, one in the morning and one later that evening. They read the first verses of Genesis, then signed off. “Goodbye. Goodnight,” Colonel Borman said. “Merry Christmas. God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
Much has been made of the well-timed solace that the broadcasts gave at the end of a horrific year. From Vietnam to the Middle East to the streets of Paris, Mexico City and across the United States, the view from the ground was bloody and bleak. But not the view from afar.
“To see the earth as it truly is,” wrote Archibald Macleish on Page A1 of The Times, “small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”
Ah, optimism. This page felt it keenly, likening Apollo 8 to the discoveries of fire and the wheel. Our editorial looked ahead to the moon landing in 1969, then to the building of moon bases that would be a steppingstone for manned voyages to the planets, “even to distant Pluto.”
It hasn’t worked out that way. Humans have outdone themselves with unmanned spacecraft, of course, sending probes far beyond distant Pluto. But manned space flight quickly went down a dead end, with an aptly named shuttle making trips to an orbital parking lot about 240 miles up. (Apollo 8’s voyage to the Moon was 240,000 miles, one way).
War, poverty, disease, genocide are still with us. Humans have not evolved beyond greed and foolishness.
The world may never again be able to gaze at its photo with awestruck wonder. But two startlingly fresh images of our planet come to mind. The first is the virtual globe that appears when you open Google Earth. The planet as information tool, waiting to fly you anywhere you choose. The other is a haunting image from the movie “Wall-E” of a brown husk left lifeless by consumption.
The real Earth seen from the Moon is surely as lovely as ever, even with thinner ice caps, smaller forests, fewer gorillas and tigers and a few billion more people. We are still brothers and sisters in the eternal cold, but increasingly connected by invisible threads, able to see — and hear and understand — one another as never before. That, at least, is reason for optimism.