I am Eagle! I am Eagle!


In the lucid 1960's, the futurist Stewart Brand began a public campaign for NASA to release a satellite image of the whole Earth taken from space, an image which was at the time only rumored to exist. Brand, forever the "big-picture" thinker, noted that "this little blue, white, green and brown jewel-like icon amongst a quite featureless black vacuum," would serve both as a potent symbol for humanity and as a firm kick-start for a legitimate environmentalism movement.

With the rapid progress of the Apollo program, NASA eventually did release such an image -- though whether this was due to Brand's haranguing is debatable -- and has been steadily churning out increasingly crystalline photographs of outer space ever since. A quick visit to the NASA online photo archives inevitably leads to a psychedelic visual assault of purple nebulas, sun flares, and mighty cosmic rings, all decked out in surreal dusky pinks and muted greens. It's enough to make one forget how recently we first saw our whole planet -- round, mostly blue, and swampy with clouds -- lying amidst a field of stars and darkness. Further, it seems impossible, now that we have access to such a panoply of space images, to conceive of what it would have been like to see such an image for the first time.

It's hard to imagine living somewhere without knowing what it looks like, although humankind did exactly this for millennia; yet the photograph of Earth from space has become so omnipresent that we can't envision a time before it. This picture, in the relatively short span of time between the 1960's and now, has somehow become devastatingly banal. In iconographic terms, the photograph of Earth has become so ubiquitous, so completely subsumed into popular culture, that we have managed to separate it from what it actually represents. With alarming postmodern flair, I find that I immediately associate this image more with Earth Day t-shirts and children's science projects than with its real correlative -- which is, of course, the very pile of rock on which we all stand.

To a certain extent, that picture of Earth from space is the most important photograph in history. After all, we're all in it, regardless of our self-imposed notions of "country" or "border." It's the ultimate family portrait, and perhaps it is this massiveness -- the literal size of the planet as well as the image's philosophical implications -- which has caused us to quickly, and possibly in self-defense, dull this ideologically threatening image. At this point, not very much can shake us from this unwarranted apathy. Not very much, that is, except being shot into outer space ourselves.

Of course, seeing a photograph of Earth is one thing, but seeing our planet -- the very foundation of all our understanding about existence -- shrink to the size of a pea first-hand is something else entirely. The particularly phlegmatic Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov, only the second man in space and the first to be there for more than 24 hours, described the experience of seeing the Earth from space as "a thousand times more beautiful than anything I could have imagined." After orbiting the planet over a dozen times, Titov replied a call from mission control with the elated cry: "I am Eagle! I am Eagle!"

Neil Armstrong, seemingly the master of withering space quotes, once said, "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."

Although the US Space program alone has logged more than 58 person-years in outer space -- and heaven knows how much time the Russians have been spending up there, considering that their Soyuz ships still hold the record for the most consistently successful human-to-cosmos ferrying -- being acquainted with outer space is still a perfectly rare characteristic for a person to have. Only a smattering of people and dogs, despite how routine low-orbit space travel has become, have ever left the planet. Very few humans, then, can understand Gherman Titov's elation, the feeling of human smallness described by Neil Armstrong, or even the wonder of a first encounter with a photograph of the Earth in its lonely entirety.

Stewart Brand was right. We can't let ourselves forget, no matter how much of a mental trip it is, that the "jewel-like icon" on which we live floats alone in the darkness of the cosmos. Bringing home a photograph of this perspective-shattering reality is one of humanity's most powerful achievements.


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