Earthrise: a view from the Moon

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Jonathan Tobias

Moon Landing 50 Years-1

By Jonathan Tobias

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Today, Saturday (7/20) is the 50th anniversary of man’s first step on the moon. Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It was precisely 10:56:15 PM Eastern Daylight Time on Sunday night, July 20, 1969.

Then for the next two and a half hours, he and Buzz Aldrin proceeded to collect rocks (47.5 pounds of them), raise the flag, read the commemorative plaque, and prove to the watching world that humanity had indeed stepped foot on another heavenly body.

I was at church camp at the time, in the boondocks of western Maryland, so tragically I missed the show. I hope y’all did better than me and watched this once-in-a-lifetime event, live with Walter Cronkite and Jules Bergman.

Only three and a half years later, on December 14, 1972, another LEM ascent stage lifted off from the lunar surface to rejoin the Apollo 17 Command Module. Gene Cernan, the last man to walk off the moon’s surface, gazed at the forbidding lunar horizon. He probably agreed with Buzz Aldrin’s assessment of the sight (which I think he rehearsed for his first step on the surface): that the surface of the moon is a “Magnificent desolation.”

Cernan reflected on the near certainty that it would be a long time before another human would visit this world:

“ … as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow [the landing site in the northern lunar hemisphere], we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind."

Humanity hasn’t been back since. It’s been a lot longer than Cernan (or anyone else) could have imagined.

It would be nice to go back to the moon. It is a vast treasure trove for science. Our moon is, by far, the largest moon relative to its host planet in the entire Solar System. Ganymede of Jupiter, Titan of Saturn, Callisto and Io of Jupiter are all moons that are objectively larger than Luna. But none of these comes close to our moon in relative size: the moon is 1/4 the size of the earth (well, 27 percent to be exact). Ganymede is only .005 percent of Jupiter’s size.

The relative size (or, really, mass) of our moon to the earth is the reason why there are tides at sea (because of the gravitational interaction), and why there are other influences (many unknown) that the moon exerts upon the earth. All the other moon-influences in the Solar System upon their host planets are negligible, if at all.

Related to this relative size is the odd and haunting fact that our moon is the same “apparent” size (i.e., the size of the tip of your finger held up to the sky) as the Sun. Not only does this weird analogy produce perfect blazing corona solar eclipses, but it also makes for a startling singularity: nowhere else in the Solar System is there such an apparent similarity of size than our Moon and our Sun, seen from the Earth.

There are mineral deposits just waiting to be mined for profit, as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are quick to remind their stockholders. There is probably ice, NASA says. Which is important for human habitation and for that all-important goal of reaching Mars.

Presently, there is a burgeoning political push for a return to the moon and a flight to the beyond (like Mars). A recent op-ed in Forbes heartily endorses the idea. The reasons for such an enterprise are predictable. It would be great for science. It would be great for bringing people together to get behind a big glorious project. It would be great for the markets (and great for the defense industry as well).

The Artemis Program heralded by the Trump Administration wants to return to the moon by 2024: this time, with a woman (“and the next man”) landing on the moon. It may not cost proportionally as much as the Apollo Program, but NASA will have to increase its annual spending by no less than 1.5 billion dollars (and probably much, much more).

The space-junkie-nerd in me is all in for Artemis, of course. That same nerd (who was watching the wondrous “Apollo 11” documentary directed by Todd Douglas Miller last Saturday night) wrote, 51 years ago, to the Apollo 8 astronauts, supporting their reading of Genesis 1 on Christmas Eve in 1968 (against the boorish complaints of Madalyn Murray O’Hair); he glued together and painted models of Apollo 11; suspended glow-in-the-dark planets and the moon from his bedroom ceiling; and watched every single incarnation of Star Trek and Star Wars.

But now there is also the “non-nerd”: I’m not sure if another moonshot is worth it. I’m not sure at all whether another space race will gather to it the sort of heroism and unifying effect that came out of the famous JFK speech, which kicked off the old “Right Stuff” NASA quest of the sixties.

Remember those noble words he delivered on September 12, 1962 at Rice Stadium in Houston: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win …”

The nation was different back then. I’m not sure if a new space-race goal would serve anymore to “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

I am certain that the idea of giving humanity “another home planet” (because, you know, “global warming” or “asteroid collision” or “nuclear apocalypse”) is just a moonbat fantasy, or more likely a cynical shell game.

Like it or not, the planet Earth is humanity’s only home forever. We might, on occasion, float around in space stations or rocket to Mars (though riddled all the way with cosmic rays). But there will be no place that can nurture human life (and any other kind of life) like home.

The earth just might to out to be the only location of intelligent life in the cosmos. And what if … what if the earth is the only place in the entire universe that hosts any life at all?

Which brings me to this question: just what was the most important goal for the Apollo missions (and all spaceflight)?

The finest achievement turned out to be, after all, not the exploration of the moon. To be sure, lunar exploration was important, and so was winning the space race in the Cold War. But frankly, the moon is a harsh mistress (as scifi master Robert Heinlein once said). It is desolate, a “lonely kind of existence,” as Frank Borman opined while Apollo 8 circled the moon at the close of 1968 — a year where there was very little “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

But as he, and crewmates James Lovell and William Anders, came around from the dark side of the moon, they encountered for the first time in human history a sight most glorious and beautiful, breathtaking in its poignant sapphire and emerald brilliance.

It was Earthrise. It was the ascension of our home planet from the bleak lunar horizon. It was this earth seen for the first time from the stars.

In his narration about the Apollo 8 voyage (in the splendid documentary “First to the Moon”), Lovell said that in our Christian faith, we say that we go to heaven when we die. “That’s true,” he agreed, “but it’s also true that when we are born we go to heaven. Because look at it — a blue and white glistening glowing orb floating in the blackness of space. A welcoming place of life, so fragile, so miraculous.“

For my part, I do not want vast sums of money spent on manned spaceflight. This nerd doesn’t need astronauts anymore. I don’t want a single dollar spent on finding another “home” for humanity: the one we have needs fixed, not discarded. There are more important needs calling for national treasure. Diseases need cured. The poor need taken care of. Too many young Americans are languishing in student debt. Democracy, decency, and human freedom and kindness need support. The earth itself is hurting and needs repair: nature seems broken, and needs much more care.

Too many people are looking only at their iPhones and not looking at the stars.

Or at the Moon.

Or at the beauty of this holy Earth.

Thank you, Apollo 11 (and 8 and 12 through 17) for showing us the whole Earth for the first time.

… as lovely and miraculous that it truly is.

… just as God saw it at the beginning, when He hung it first like an ornament in the sable velvet of the night sky. And said that it was good.

Jonathan Tobias (janotec77@gmail.com) resides in Edenton, and is a lecturer in systematic and pastoral theology at Christ the Savior Seminary near Pittsburgh. A semi-retired Eastern Orthodox priest, he is also an occasional gardener at the Cupola House and sings with the Albemarle Chorale, and the Mighty Termightees.