Fifteen days ago, we observed the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Before and after that date, the event was commemorated and celebrated across all major modes of communication: books, magazines, newspapers, television.
While I have sampled most of them, the medium that commanded most of my time was public television. Over the past few weeks, PBS has presented a variety of absorbing and detailed accounts of that historic undertaking. Much of the video was archival footage, on public display for the first time.
Wednesday evening, in pursuit of an alternative to round two of the Democratic presidential primary debates, I watched a measured and meditative treatment of another of NASA’s dazzling projects: the Voyager I and II expeditions. Originally aired in 2017, the program was well worth a repeat and a fitting cap to our national space retrospective.
In terms of pure science, the Voyager flights were probably the more significant. In fact, they have not ended. After fly-bys of the four outer planets, each craft continued into other space. Number One slipped past the sun’s pull in August 2012; Number Two exited the heliosphere last November. As far as I know, they are continuing to send diminishingly faint signals to Earth.
The trips to the moon were almost as much a demonstration of American superiority to Russian technology as scientific and engineering feats. The twin Voyager flights were a mind-expanding trove of knowledge, giving us stunning views of, and wholly unexpected information about, our neighboring planets and their satellites.
It is perhaps only honest to admit that both country’s lunar achievements depended on German research and engineers, shanghaied after World War II. We scooped up the best: Wernher von Braun and his aerospace team.
Both the Apollo and Voyager programs included memorable and thought-provoking pictures of the Earth: Willam Anders’ iconic “Earthrise” photo on the Apollo 8 flight and the last picture taken by Voyager One as it was leaving the solar system. It was hard to find us in the latter: a faint white dot almost obscured by visual “static.”
Looking at both, I could not help but feel again the rush of emotion I experienced when first I saw them: that beautiful blue and white orb floating in space and the minuscule dot almost invisible in a sea of darkness.
How is it, I wonder, that we can see our only home, so isolated and remote, and not be moved to care for it and dwell in peace with our fellow inhabitants? It’s literally all we have.
When we hear people shouting to others to go home, we should remember that all of us are already there. This is both our singular and universal home. There is nowhere else to go.
True, our living space is getting crowded. In the 50 years since we landed on the moon, the world’s population has jumped from 3.6 billion to 7.7 billion. Thanks to our inattention to climate change, parts of the world are becoming uninhabitable. That and rampant corruption are causing masses of people to move. If we don’t start thinking globally, we are destined to be at each other’s throats.
As if blind to the obvious, we continue to pursue division rather than unity. We seem drawn inexorably to the darkness rather than the light. The world that we so hopefully crafted after the horrors of the last century is falling apart. We seem to be far more interested in assigning blame than seeking solutions.
Watching the uplifting saga of our quest for knowledge and understanding of the universe in which we drift, I wonder why that careful focus, determination, energy and funding can’t be expended on the peace and preservation of the home in which we dwell.
This planet is our mother. We are part of the unique web of life it supports. No single person or group has proprietary rights to the exclusion of others. Our time on it is short. How better to spend that time than in careful stewardship and mutual love and respect?