Oliver Morton has a lyrical and thoughtful op-ed today in the Times, in which he re-interprets the famous images of Planet earth seen from space:
They came for the Moon, and for the first three orbits it was to the Moon that the astronauts of Apollo 8 devoted their attention. Only on their fourth time round did they lift their eyes to see their home world, rising silently above the Moon’s desert plains, blue and white and beautiful. When, later on that Christmas Eve in 1968, they read the opening lines of Genesis on live television, they did it with a sense of the heavens and the Earth, of the form and the void, enriched by the wonder they had seen rising into the Moon’s black sky.
The photograph of that earthrise by the astronaut Bill Anders forms part of the Apollo program’s enduring legacy — eclipsing, in many memories, any discoveries about the Moon or renewed sense of national pride. It and other pictures looking back at the Earth provided a new perspective on the thing that all humanity shares. As Robert Poole documents in his history, “Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth,” that perspective had deep cultural effects, notably in the emotional resonance it offered the growing environmental movement. Seen from the Moon, the Earth seemed so small, so isolated, so terribly fragile.
It takes nothing from the beauty and power of the image, though, to point out that it was the photographer, far more than its subject, who was isolated, and that the fragility is an illusion. The planet Earth is a remarkably robust thing, and this strength flows from its ancient and intimate connection to the cosmos beyond. To see the photo this way does not undermine its environmental relevance — but it does recast it.
That the Earth is small is undeniable. If the inner solar system were the size of the United States, the Earth would be the size of a football field; if the distance to the center of the galaxy were a mile, the Earth would be less than an atom. But if the “Earthrise” photo could have captured our planet in the dimension of time instead of space, things would look different. In its duration, as opposed to its diameter, the Earth demands to be measured on a cosmic scale. At more than four billion years old, it stretches a third of the way across the history of the universe, a third of the way back to the Big Bang itself. Many of the stars you can see on a clear winter’s night are younger than the planet beneath your feet.
Mere persistence is not, in itself, that great a feat. The barren rocks of the Moon have persisted almost as long. But the Earth has not merely endured; it has lived. For almost 90 percent of its history the planet has been inhabited, and shaped by life. The biological mechanisms that first operated in the dawn of life animate the creatures of the Earth to this day, forming an unbroken chain at least 3.8 billion years long.