Big Blue Marble

21 July 2014

A view of Earth from space. NASA
A view of Earth from space.

If you’ve ever observed the stars in a clear dark sky, you likely remember it. Most people don’t live in areas where the sky is very dark, so it isn’t something they experience often. But when they do, it seems to have an impact on their lives. Often people will talk about their first experience of a sky filled with stars in almost hushed tones. It is a view that seems to invoke a sense of awe and wonder in all of us.

Most people live within a few hours drive of a location with reasonably dark skies, so it is simply a matter of traveling to a new vantage point to experience something wondrous and transformative.

Forty-five years ago, a similar thing occurred on a much larger scale, but only for a handful of American astronauts. It was during the Apollo mission, when the first humans journeyed to the Moon. From their vantage they could see Earth as a blue marble they could cover with their thumb. It is a sight made famous by the Apollo 17 photograph above, and it was a transformative experience for many of the astronauts.

As Michael Collins said,

Oddly enough the overriding sensation I got looking at the earth was, my god that little thing is so fragile out there.

Or as Neil Armstrong later wrote:

It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.

We’ve all seen images of the Earth from space, just as we’ve all seen photographs of starry night skies. But it is the personal experience of seeing the night with our own eyes that we remember, just as the view of Earth peaking behind their thumb is what some astronauts most remember.

With the 45th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, there’s been much discussion about returning to the Moon, and perhaps traveling on to Mars. Of all the great things we can learn about these other worlds. This is true, but perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the power of making those journeys and looking back upon our big blue marble.