50 years ago today, on Christmas Eve 1968, the Apollo 8 command module rounded the Moon. It was the first time human beings had ever ventured out of view of our home planet. When Frank Borman, Bill Anders, and and Jim Lovell rounded the dark side of the Moon, they saw something no person had ever seen before: the Earth rising over the horizon of another world.

We are fortunate that Bill Anders had the presence of mind to shoot the photograph that would become known as “Earthrise”. No single photograph has done as much to shift human awareness of our place in the universe. Since that photograph made its debut, it has been possible to see our home planet as it is, floating in the vast dark of outer space, the most fortunate of the celestial bodies orbiting our Sun.

Borman, Anders, and Lovell would orbit the Moon 10 times, and then return safely to Earth. The Apollo 8 mission was one of humanity’s great voyages of exploration. In the context of the Cold War, it was an American achievement; in the sweep of history, it is a breakthrough that belongs to all humankind.

It was not the photograph; it was the collective weight of meaning of the science behind the mission, the daring execution of the voyage, and then the incomparably new perspective. All of the human effort and aspiration that made the photograph possible had redefined our sense of place and purpose.

Bill Anders inside the Apollo 8 command module. Credit: NASA.

Bill Anders wrote today, to mark this half-century of new perspective:

In December of 1968, as Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and I rocketed toward our nearest planetary neighbor, America faced many challenges. It sometimes seemed as if the country was coming apart at the seams. The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the protests against our involvement there, and the Cold War divided us against ourselves and against the world. Forces from within and without threatened us. Everywhere, tensions ran high. Still, millions of Americans, and some one billion people worldwide, tuned in on Christmas Eve to watch our crew’s live television broadcast from space.

Noting the high risk of this unprecedented expedition, he added:

Hundreds of thousands of people labored together to move us, as astronauts, as Americans, as humans forward. The most significant revelation of Apollo 8’s journey extends far beyond our scientific-and-technological achievements, beyond our “records” and “firsts.” We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth.

From that moment on, it has become necessary to consciously embrace the idea of Earth as our precious common home, whose life support systems we must work together to protect. The work of learning how to do that is ongoing; far more scientific and engineering know-how than anyone imagines is advancing this shared work.

Earth-systems science, climate science, geology, soil science, meteorology, forestry, and oceanography, as well as basic chemistry and physics, all of these are part of the work. The awakening Earthrise instigated leads to the startling question: Do we know whether we are working towards or against the sustainable health of natural systems that support human life as we know it on our blue planet?

The process of working to answer that question we call resilience intelligence.

Climate disruption is a glaring signal, attached to everything that is most real and necessary for human survival, that we are not in balance with the cosmic good fortune that became apparent with the first Earthrise image.

We are now in the age of exploration of Earth systems; we are exploring our capability to be good planetary stewards. We must recognize that the heroic work of the Apollo 8 crew continues in the work of protecting what they discovered.

[ The Note for December 2018 ]

Written by Joseph Robertson

Joseph is Global Strategy Director for the non-partisan non-profit Citizens' Climate Lobby. He is the lead strategist supporting the Acceleration Dialogues (diplomatic climate-solutions roundtables) and Resilience Intel—an effort to move the world to 100% climate-smart finance. Joseph represents CCL in the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, the UNFCCC negotiations, and other UN processes, and is founder of the Geoversiv Foundation and Live Your Democracy—an online periodical promoting engaged, non-partisan civics. His articles appear from time to time in the Guardian.

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