How is the first picture of Earth from space the most powerful political picture ever published? Marking the 40th anniversary of the famous picture, a British newspaper, The Independent, remarked that the three astronauts of the Apollo 8 mission “went to the moon, but ended up discovering the Earth.”
The British cosmologist, Sir Fred Hoyle, had predicted the first image of Earth from space would forever change how we view the planet. Reviewing a photo of the Earth brought back from the Apollo 11 mission, Carl Sagan explained just how our perspective had changed, “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” Concerned with their own orbit, the necessary calculations to safely land on the moon, and all the instruments readings that would guide them, the Apollo 8 astronauts almost let this spectacular image slip by them unnoticed. Imagining that moment you can almost hear Africanus’s words to Cicero reminding him to keep his mind on these higher regions.
Truly great acts might require a universal understanding of life, the events of its past and the promises of its future. Michael Collins, an Apollo 11 astronaut who landed on the moon in 1969, shares this Ciceronian perspective in his book Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey, published in 1974. As you read his words and imagine this view of the planet from 100,000 miles, you hear Cicero’s Dream of Scipio resonate with the potential of this modern accomplishment.
(Michael Collins’s words in bold; Cicero’s words from the Dream of Scipio in block quotes)
“I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say,100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment”
‘Instead, Scipio, be like your grandfather here, and me, your father. Respect justice and do your duty. That is important in the case of parents and relatives and paramount in the case of one’s country. That is the way of life which leads to heaven and to the company, here, of those who have already completed their lives. Released from their bodies, they dwell in that place which you see–a place which you have learnt from the Greeks to call the Milky Way. (And in fact there was this circle shining with dazzling radiance among the fiery bodies.)’
When I beheld the whole universe from that point, everything seemed glorious and wonderful. There were stars which we have never seen from this earth of ours, each of a size which we have never imagined to exist. The smallest star, which was furthest from heaven and nearest to earth, was shining with a light not its own. The spheres of the stars easily exceeded the earth in size. Now the earth itself seemed so small to me that I felt ashamed of our empire, whose extent was no more than a dot on its surface.
As I gazed more intently upon it, Africanus said ‘Well now, how long will your thoughts remain fixed on the earth? Do you not notice what lofty regions you have entered?’
“The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied. I am not a naïve man. I don’t believe that a glance from 100,000 miles out would cause a Prime Minister to scurry back to his parliament with a disarmament plan, but I do think it would plant a seed that ultimately could grow into such concrete action. Just because borders are invisible from space doesn’t mean that they’re not real—they are, and I like them. . . . What I am saying, however, is that all countries must begin thinking of solutions to their problems which benefit the entire globe, not simply their own national interests.”
I gazed at all these things in amazement. Then, pulling myself together, I said ‘What is that sound, so loud and yet so sweet, that fills my ears?’
‘That,’ he said, ‘is the sound produced by the impetus and momentum of the spheres themselves. It is made up of intervals which, though unequal, are determined systematically by fixed proportions. The blend of high and low notes produces an even flow of various harmonies. Such vast motions cannot sweep on in silence, and nature ordains that low notes should be emitted by one of the boundaries and high notes by the other. From the uppermost of the heavenly orbits (that which carries the stars) comes a high note with frequent vibrations, in that its cycle is more rapid. The deepest note emanates from the lowest orbit, that of the moon. The earth, which is the ninth sphere, remains fixed and immobile in one place, filling the central position of the universe. Those eight rotating spheres (of which two [being an octave apart] produce the same effect) give out seven distinctive sounds according to their intervals. That number is more or less the linchpin of everything. By imitating this system with strings and voices experts have succeeded in opening up a way back to this place, as have others who, in their life on earth, have applied their outstanding intellect to heavenly subjects.’
“The smoke from the Saar Valley may pollute half a dozen other countries, depending on the direction of the wind. We all know that, but it must be seen to make an indelible impression, to produce an emotional impact that makes one argue for long-term virtues at the expense of short-term gains. I think the view from 100,000 miles could be invaluable in getting people together to work out joint solutions, by causing them to realize that the planet we share unites us in a way far more basic and far more important than differences in skin color or religion or economic system.”
Though listening with astonishment, I kept turning my eyes repeatedly back to earth. Thereupon Africanus said ‘I notice you are still gazing at the home and habitation of men. If it seems small to you (as indeed it is) make sure to keep your mind on these higher regions and to think little of the human scene down there. For what fame can you achieve, what glory worth pursuing, that consists merely of people’s talk? Look. The earth is inhabited in just a few confined areas. In between those inhabited places, which resemble blots, there are huge expanses of empty territory. Those who live on earth are separated in such a way that nothing can readily pass between them from one populated region to another. More than that, in relation to your position, some people stand at a different angle, some at right angles, and some directly opposite. You certainly cannot expect any praise from them.’
‘…That entire land mass which you occupy has been made narrow from north to south and broader from east to west. It is like a small island surrounded by the sea which you call the Atlantic, the Great Sea, or the Ocean. Yet observe how small it is in spite of its imposing name. Has your fame, or that of any of us, been able to find its way from these civilized familiar lands to the far side of the Caucasus, which you see here, or to swim across the Ganges, there? In the remaining areas of the east or west, or in those far to the north and south, who will ever hear your name? When all those regions have been cut out, you can surely see how small is the area over which your glory is so eager to extend. And even those who talk about us now–how long will they continue to do so?’
“The pity of it is that so far the view from 100,000 miles has been the exclusive property of a handful of test pilots, rather than the world leaders who need this new perspective, or the poets who might communicate it to them.”
‘Since, then, it is clear that what moves by itself is eternal, who could deny that this property is possessed by minds? Everything that is propelled by an external force is inanimate; but an animate being is moved by its own internal power, for that is the peculiar property and function of the mind. If the mind is the one and only entity that moves itself, surely it has never been born and will never die.’
‘Be sure to employ it in the best kinds of activity. Now the best concerns are for the safety of one’s country. When the mind has been engaged in and exercised by those concerns it will fly more quickly to this, its dwelling-place and home. And it will do so the more readily if, when still enclosed in the body, it already ventures abroad and, by contemplating what lies beyond, detaches itself as much as possible from the body.’
Collins, Michael. Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
Cicero, Marcus Tullius. The Republic and The Laws. Translated by Niall Rudd. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
***Thanks to National Academy alumni Stacy Miller for finding the Michael Collins excerpt and sharing it on Facebook