Earth from space—swirling wisps of white against a backdrop of deep azure, punctuated with brown and green swatches of land, all etched on one orb surrounded by black space, floating, seemingly isolated, but teeming with humanity and other forms of life. It is an iconic image, first captured November 10, 1967, by the Applications Technology Satellite (ATS)-3, an unmanned craft conducting payload experiments and examining the space environment. Since then, astronauts and spacecraft have sent back hundreds of pictures of Earth, and each one has had the same breathtaking effect.
Seeing our home planet from space is one of those self-reflective experiences, like seeing yourself in a picture, or hearing your voice on tape. It tells you something about yourself from outside of yourself. It is an experience that changes your understanding of the world and your place in it.
This phenomenon is best illustrated by the words of space travelers who, upon reaching orbit, have gazed back at Earth and felt the profound impact of viewing the planet in its entirety.
Frank Borman, Apollo 8 commander, said, “The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me—a small disk, 240,000 miles away. . . . Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.”
Another veteran of the Apollo 8 mission, William Anders, had this to say: “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
Neil Armstrong, the first person to step foot on the Moon, described the feeling of perspective he experienced when staring out at the Earth from the spacecraft window: “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.”
Alan Shepard, commander of the Apollo 14 mission, the eighth manned mission to the Moon, said of the experience of seeing the home planet in its entirety, “If somebody had said before the flight, ‘Are you going to get carried away looking at the Earth from the Moon?’ I would have said, ‘No, no way.’ But yet when I first looked back at the Earth, standing on the Moon, I cried.”
Apollo 15 astronaut, James Irwin, said of the experience, “As we got further and further away, it [the Earth] diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.”
Astronaut Alfred Worden, another of the original Apollo crew, and pilot of the Apollo 15 mission, said of his experience, “Now I know why I’m here. Not for a closer look at the Moon, but to look back at our home, the Earth.”