I am a history nerd and a science geek. Now that we got that out of the way, it’s pretty understandable why manned space exploration, so steeped in historical and scientific significance, is absolutely fascinating for me. A major topic that incorporates both history and science is the Cold War’s Space Race. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into space (Sputnik 1). For nearly the next 20 years, the Soviets and the United States took part in a frantic rivalry, with each side dedicated to one-upping the other in attaining a variety of “firsts” in space exploration.
I’m sure many of you have seen the image above before. Entitled “Earthrise,” it was taken by the crew of Apollo 8. Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to leave Earth orbit and voyage to the Moon (if the name Jim Lovell sounds familiar, it should. He was the commander of the ill-fated, and now famous, Apollo 13 mission). The picture was taken by Anders while the crew was in lunar orbit on December 24, 1968.
For even the casual astronomer or space enthusiast, “Earthrise” is perhaps the most famous picture ever taken. Personally, I don’t know the exact words I can use to describe how I feel and what I think when I see this picture. I guess the best thing I can say is that it’s awe-inspiring, and an eye-opener. Born from a rivalry between 2 superpowers, mankind witnessed an unprecedented leap in technological ability and pushed the horizon of exploration further than previously thought possible, and this picture is a testament to that fact. “Earthrise” also demonstrates the vast and humbling nature of space. That blue sphere surrounded by black emptiness is our home.
From a more modern perspective, “Earthrise” invokes something else. Times are tough for our country. A casualty of this period is manned space exploration. With the Space Shuttle in retirement, it’s now back to the drawing board for NASA and other aerospace companies in order to to lead us into the next era in space exploration, whenever that may be. “Earthrise” is a picture I inevitably turn to when I think about the merits of space exploration. Again, it’s just hard to explain. “Earthrise” validates what astronaut Gus Grissom said back during the beginnings of Project Apollo: “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” It is worth that risk because what we achieve in the form of knowledge, understanding and, yes, pride outweighs the sacrifices made to obtain it. Call me crazy, but “Earthrise” is perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I’m hopeful that somewhere down the road a new generation of scientists and adventurers decide to carry the torch, just as Lovell, Anders, Borman, Armstrong and others did. I’m hopeful that we once again find individuals eager to expand our horizons and take us to new realms in space. As Neil deGrasse Tyson writes, “Ever since there have been people, there have been explorers, looking in places where others hadn’t been before. Not everyone does it, but we are part of a species where some members of the species do- to the benefit of us all.” (http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/read/quotes-by-neil-degrasse-tyson/space-exploration-quotes) And I truly can’t wait to see what the next big thing in space exploration has in store for us.