The Apollo 8 mission was to just orbit the Moon, not land. The astronauts had been concentrating on the lunar surface, when Frank Borman caught a glimpse of color on the gray horizon, a conspicuous glow of blue and white against the black sky. It was the Earth. While he excitedly snapped photos in black and white, Bill Anders loaded his camera with color film, and got the shot that became historic. We know it as "Earthrise."
And it almost never happened. But you'll have to head over there for the full story, and the full-size photo. I invite you to read the story, and then just spend a few moments gazing at that cloud-swirled blue marble. That's home, rising in a lunar sky.
Carl Sagan named it "The Pale Blue Dot." It was Voyager's Valentine's Day gift to Earth, a portrait. The distance was so vast - nearly 4 billion miles - that Earth filled less than a pixel, bathed in a ray from the sun.
Seeing Earth like this places everything in a different perspective:
In a commencement address delivered May 11, 1996, Sagan related his thoughts on the deeper meaning of the photograph: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. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.