A Look Back at Fifty Years of the Space Age

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The noted British astronomer Fred Hoyle predicted shortly after the launch of Sputnik in October, 1957 that when we humans could obtain a picture of Earth from deep space, life here would never be the same. This was a time in history when the average Westerner’s concept of the universe was hardly more sophisticated than “God in the heavens, man in the middle and everything else below.” That is to say that only a very few scientists had foresight as to the extent and complexity of the cosmos that would be revealed following the arrival of the space age and its modern technologies. The official dogma of both science and religion in those early years claimed that we are alone in the universe; a position which yielded only grudgingly to modern telescopic evidence that millions, if not billions, of stars may have habitable planets, and hardly yielding at all to the hotly debated claims by some, that we have already been visited.

I discovered Hoyle’s prognosis circa 1964 when I was doing research for my assignment as US Navy technical liaison to the ill-fated Manned Orbiting Laboratory program planned by the Department of Defense. Those words registered strongly with me at the time, although neither the newly named NASA nor the DOD promoted space flight for its impact upon human esoteric sensibilities. Far more prosaic objectives were the driving force behind the initial conquest of space, namely political, technical and military dominance of this new frontier.

Figure 1

Mitchell Figure 1: Earth rising over the lunar landscape captured by Apollo 8

It was not until the flight of Apollo 8, in December, 1968, that we humans were first able to observe our home planet from afar, and to make a photographic record for all to see, thereby testing Hoyle’s conjecture. Since that day, not a day has passed in major cities of the world without the electronic and print media prominently displaying pictures of Earth from deep space. Particularly appealing are the magnificent full Earth images, from Apollo 17 with the spacecraft positioned directly between Earth and Sun. Although all Apollo crews were captivated by the view from deep space of Earth in its heavenly setting and each crew in turn made their own photographs of the view, only rarely was the spacecraft position such that a view of the fully illuminated Earth was available at near lunar distances.

What is the mystique that causes these pictures to be so continuously appealing? I believe it is the fact of suddenly seeing ourselves as part of the larger picture of creation, and feeling a deep yearning to understand better our relationship to the cosmos. Our wanting answers to questions of origins, purpose and destiny. Surely ancient humans looked into the star filled sky, marveled and wondered at the view, and tried to fathom the meaning. But only in our time have we had the privilege of going out, looking back and seeing the larger picture of our Home Planet in its setting as a tiny haven of life, in a rather average solar system, far out on the spiral arm of a rather mundane galaxy, which is just one similar to billions of others that we can now see with modern telescopes. Even the most advanced science of yesteryear did not give clue to the amazing discoveries that powerful telescopic and photographic technology would provide following the first years of the space age.

Many thousands of years ago primitive man set out on foot and inhabited most of Earth’s land masses. Later, the ancient Phoenicians in their frail craft began exploring the Mediterranean Sea, and the South Sea Islanders in dugout canoes navigated between islands of the vast Pacific. In more recent times our fathers learned to conquer the air above us and the depths of the oceans, and now our generation has developed the capability to challenge the heavens and to extend human presence into our solar system and perhaps even beyond. It seems our destiny is exploration and expansion. And we must. Current knowledge of the stars and their processes cause us to believe that our solar system is about five billion years old and roughly half way through its life cycle. Thus for our species to survive, we must have left this planet before our sun burns out its fuel. But actually, the need to understand our destiny is more immediate.

Buckminster Fuller, a great visionary and inventor of our time, noted in the earliest days of space flight, that: “We are the crew of Spaceship Earth, but we are a crew in mutiny.” And asks: “How do you manage a spacecraft with a mutinous crew?” Those of us who have had the privilege of observing our Home Planet from afar all marvel at the beauty, the peace, the serenity that comes with seeing Earth in its setting among the stars. The boundaries that divide us into different cultures with different ideas, rules and values are not visible. Although we spacefarers may express our feeling of the experience in slightly different ways, the essence is the same: exhilaration at the magnificence and majesty of our Home Planet in its place among the stars. This experience has been noted and written about. It is called the “Overview Effect” and is likely to become a major attraction as space flight becomes more common and available to the public.

Mitchell Figure 2: Earth as seen by Apollo 17 on its voyage to the moon.

Mitchell Figure 2: Earth as seen by Apollo 17 on its voyage to the moon.

However, we are indeed a crew in seeming mutiny and damaging the basic natural infrastructure of the planet that gives us life. The exponential increase in every measure relating to human activity such as population growth, dwindling fresh water supply, ecosystem destruction, species extinction and depletion of other nonrenewable resources threatens the future of all life on the planet. Add to those concerns our human propensity to continue accepting violence, particularly warfare between cultures and nations as a proper means of conflict resolution. This does not bode well for human civilization as it puts us on an unsustainable course into the future.

Both Hoyle and Fuller were correct in their assessment. When we see our Earth from deep space, it appears as a magnificent haven of life and beauty that inspires the deepest sense of appreciation, oneness with the cosmos and the joy of living. It has provided we humans the means to achieve our dreams and to create our destiny even beyond the lifetime of our solar system. But beneath that thin layer of life giving atmosphere we are a crew of Spaceship Earth largely unmindful that the violence we perpetrate upon each other and upon the structure of the ecosystem which gives us sustenance also threatens our very existence. Only by seeing the larger picture of ourselves as an integral part in the movement of the cosmos through space and time and understanding that he have a deep responsibility to the future of our planet and its species to insure survival, can we begin to reverse the unsustainable path that we have chosen.

Editorial Comment: The above article is by a man who knows, better than most, what it means to have a global perspective. Dr. Edgar Mitchell is the sixth man to walk on the moon, one of only a dozen men who have ever experienced the view of Earth from the surface of its companion body. After retiring from the astronaut core, Dr. Mitchell went on to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences, an organization with 30,000+ members dedicated to seeking a deeper understanding of the ways of “inner knowing” and transforming the world condition into one of freedom, wisdom and love.