How seeing Earth from space changes you

Christopher Potter's "The Earth Gazers" provides a history of people who were changed by grand perspectives

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published March 4, 2018 5:30PM (EST)

The Earth Gazers: On Seeing Ourselves by Christopher Potter (Getty/imaginima/Pegasus Books)
The Earth Gazers: On Seeing Ourselves by Christopher Potter (Getty/imaginima/Pegasus Books)

American astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man on the moon, may not be as well-known as Neil Armstrong, the first. Yet Mitchell’s reflection on his experience was more colorful, perhaps, than Armstrong’s famously flubbed “one small step for [a] man” quote. “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it,” Mitchell said of the experience of looking down on Earth, as quoted in a 1974 People profile. “From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”

Mitchell was not the only person to look down on the entire Earth from space and feel something profound. It’s been well-documented that many of the 24 people who have gazed at Earth from afar have been awed by their experience. (Note: the reason that number is so small is that modern space travel is low-Earth orbit; far fewer people have been far enough into space so as to see the planet as a distant blue circle.) And the idea that getting a perspective on existence might be deeply affecting has some precedence in fiction: In “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,” the second book in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, readers are introduced to a torture device called the Total Perspective Vortex, which, as Adams explains: “when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says ‘You are here.’” In Adam’s satirical telling, it is considered the most horrible torture device ever to exist.

Christopher Potter, in his new book “The Earth Gazers,” has written a comprehensive tome on the subject of how the view of Earth from space changes people and provides a grand perspective. Much like some describe the experience of drugs like LSD, that view of Earth seems to change people forever — their disposition, certainly, but also their politics. The same goes, to some degree, for other great vistas on creation: from the first pilots’ views of Earth from the sky, to the metaphorical views on creation that some scientists experience, there is something mystical that occurs when a human is imbued with a greater perspective. I spoke with Potter over email regarding his new book and how seeing Earth from space changes us.

In your first chapter, you write about how the invention of the airplane — both the experience of flying them and the idea of flight itself — deeply affected pilots and non-pilots alike (including Marcel Proust). Do you think that flight can still have that same effect today, say, on those who experience the world from a commercial passenger jet? Or has flight become more mundane, and normal? 

As a young aviator, Charles Lindbergh "felt sure airplanes would bring peoples of the world together in peace and understanding." The aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote that flying was like an "ascension to the essence of things." Indeed, more than a century earlier the first balloonists were making the same claims. Out of his own experience, H. G. Wells wrote that seeing the Earth from a balloon was "one of the supreme things possible to man."

The climax of the book is that transformative moment on December 21, 1968, when three men saw for the first time the Earth as a sphere in space. Even now, only those 24 Apollo astronauts who went to the moon have had that experience, a fact that still astounds me given how used we have all become to seeing satellite images of the Earth from space. Many of the astronauts said, as balloonists and aviators had before them, that if only we could all experience the Earth as they had experienced it, the human species might be transformed.

We are still waiting for that transformation to happen. By the time Lindbergh reached middle age he had become disillusioned with aviation, not just what aviation was doing to the planet but disillusioned with the experience of flying itself. On the other hand, Apollo astronaut Mike Collins said that sometimes, even now, being in a plane brings back the experience he once had of looking out on the Earth a couple of hundred thousand miles away.

Imagine if we had some glass-like material out of which we could build the body of a plane, that gave passengers a 360-degree view of the Earth and the sky. We wouldn’t build those planes even if we could. The experience would be too overwhelming, too terrifying. But we have gone to the other extreme. On flights that try to mimic the passing of nighttime, even when there is bright sunlight outside, we are actively discouraged from opening the tiny window shutters. Spectacular views during intervals of cloudlessness pass us by. Imagine how different the experience of flying could be if the captain came on and actively encouraged us to look at the view.

I think the example of Lindbergh in the book is very interesting due to Lindbergh’s politics and relevance today (he originated the term "America First," as you likely know). It’s clear Lindbergh’s experience of parachuting and flying was profoundly inspiring to him, but at the same time, his politics were ultimately a bit strange — while probably not technically right-wing himself, he is known to have sympathized with Nazi Germany, attended the Berlin Olympics, and even accepted a “swastika-decorated” medallion. I am wondering if you have insight into how the sort of profound experience of viewing the world from above translates to one's individual politics in a consistent or inconsistent way. 

It is easy to be reductive when writing about any human being. Lindbergh lived an extraordinarily various life. To say that he was complex is an extreme understatement. When I discovered how intimately he had been involved with the history of liquid-fueled rockets I knew that I could treat his life as a kind of cipher for the age he lived through. A topic I keep coming back to is whether or not human beings are capable of change, whether as individuals or collectively as a species. The view of the Earth from above I use as a metaphor for that possible change. Charles Lindbergh and Wernher von Braun (the architect of the Saturn V rocket that got men to the moon) were both deeply flawed characters, but arguably both grew and changed. What more can we hope for in a human being than that he or she grows up?

At the end of the Second World War, the first Nazi concentration camp the Allied forces came upon was at Mittelbau-Dora. The camp had supplied the labor force at a nearby factory built deep into the Harz mountains that was mass-producing von Braun’s V-2 rocket. Many thousands of prisoners perished. One Nazi doctor told Albert Speer that he had seen Dante’s Inferno. Von Braun had fled the scene days before, soon to be captured and taken to America along with a hundred dismantled V-2s. Lindbergh was among those first witnesses to arrive at the camp. Was it that experience that destroyed his belief in American exceptionalism? "I had considered my civilization as everlasting. It was too scientific, too intelligent, to break down as earlier civilizations had," he wrote in his journal, before tellingly changing from the historic past into the present tense: "This, I realize, is not a thing confined to any nation or to any people… What is barbaric on one side of the Earth is still barbaric on the other… It is … men of all nations to whom this war has brought shame and degradations." Photographs that showed the full horror of the conditions in the camps shocked the world. In his journal, Lindbergh wrote "Of course, I knew these things were going on, but it is one thing to have the intellectual knowledge, even to look at a photograph someone else has taken, and quite another to stand on the scene yourself, seeing, hearing, feeling with your own senses." Interestingly, the contrast between seeing a photograph compared to the experience of seeing for oneself comes up again in my book when I consider the impact of those first photographs of the Earth that came back from Apollo 8 compared to the experience itself.

You ask if those who experienced the Earth from above changed in a consistent way. If we take each astronaut’s own words then I would have to say consistency is lacking. At the time, most astronauts said that the experience had changed them deeply, but there were a few who said that it hadn’t affected them at all, or had changed them only a little. But if we take the word of those who knew them best then a different picture emerges. The NASA doctor Chuck Berry once said that "no one who went into space wasn’t changed by the experience… I think some of them really don’t see what happened to them." The Apollo nurse Dee O’Hara said that when the astronauts came back from the moon "they have something, a sort of wild look, I would say, as if they had fallen in love with a mystery up there, sort of as if they haven’t gotten their feet back on the ground, as if they regret having come back to us… a rage at having to come back to Earth." But being human, of course this feeling did not and could not last. Even those who said they had been deeply affected by being in space said that the experience changed over the years. Forty years later Jim Lovell wrote: "But the mind easily forgets, and not too long after people get back to the way they lived before – wars and disruption and human cruelty." Rusty Schweickart got so tired of talking about it he began to wonder if he had made the whole thing up.

As far as changing their politics, most returning astronauts decided to spend more time doing what mattered to them. In fact, many of them left NASA afterwards. Ed Mitchell said that he felt a strong desire "to live life to the fullest, to acquire more knowledge, to abandon the economic treadmill." He devoted himself to studying consciousness. In space he had sensed that the universe is "more intelligent than inanimate." Al Bean took to painting, Al Worden to writing poetry. Jim Irwin set up a Baptist ministry and went on an expedition to Mount Ararat in search of the remains of Noah’s ark. Charlie Duke became active in prison missionary work. Though he had walked on the moon, he said that his "walk with God would last forever."

I also wonder about scientists, generally, who had a broad view of the universe and how that affected their perspectives. Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein, Jane Goodall and Stephen Jay Gould all seem to have derived various sorts of humanism from their work, although none ever viewed Earth from space. Do you think this is similar to the inspirational effect of viewing Earth from space, as you describe it? 

It’s true, I do show ways in which seeing the Earth from space inspired scientists. The microbiologist René Dubos, who popularized the expression "think globally, act locally," said that seeing Earthrise made him realize that "the Earth is a living organism." James Lovelock, who was then employed by NASA, was inspired by Earthrise to come up with his Gaia theory. We are lucky that scientists are largely also humanists but that isn’t always true. There is a very dark side of science. Darwinism was, soon after Darwin’s time, perverted into Social Darwinism, out of which arose eugenics (at one time a respectable science), a direct route to the concentration camps. Nazism was perverted science not perverted religion. One of the things I wanted to show in the book is how, great as Apollo was, it also has it roots in one of the darkest periods of human history, in the Nazi concentration camps. Surely one of most valuable lessons of war is that it reminds us of the potential within all of us of both heroism and monstrousness. This is dangerous ground. Yes, I’m sure there are evil people and good people, whether or not they are born that way is too big a subject for today. But I think I can safely say that most people have the potential to be better or worse than they already are. I don’t follow any organized religion, but I do find the Buddhist ideal of living in order to become one’s best self a compelling belief. I’m particularly fond of Apollo 12 astronaut Al Bean’s remark that ‘everyone who went to the moon came back more like they were already.’

Do you think the world would be a better place if more than 24 people had the experience of viewing Earth from space? Or do photographs and film and movies that show that achieve the same effect? 

Apollo astronaut Mike Collins later came to believe that seeing the Earth in a photograph was not the same as the actual experience of seeing it from space for oneself. He said that photographs "deceive us… they transfer the emphasis from the one Earth to the multiplicity of reproduced images." Unfortunately I do think we humans grow tired of any novel experience. As Ibsen once said, economic revolution is in itself not enough, we need a revolution of the mind. It was something both Lindbergh and von Braun came to understand. Wisdom is as important as knowledge. Science remorselessly collects knowledge but we are no wiser now than we were in ancient times. (The British columnist Miles Kingston neatly made the distinction: "Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.") Seeing the Earth from space, Ed Mitchell came to understand that "the Earth was at a balance point in its evolution teetering between potential greatness and colossal collapse." In the 1970s von Braun wrote that "today all civilization is in play. Will man’s intelligence keep up with his technology?" It’s perhaps the most crucial question of our age. We know the question is crucial; I’m not sure that sending more people up to look at the Earth from space is going to make us take the question any more seriously. The writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Charles Lindbergh’s wife, wrote of the Earthrise photograph that it might take a hundred years before its full impact was assimilated. Perhaps the best we can hope is that whatever was catalyzed by those first experiences and first images is coursing through invisible channels and changing us in ways we cannot yet recognize.

What inspired you to write this book? Did you ever feel affected, comparably, by a life-changing image or experience, whether a vista or a view from a plane (or otherwise)? 

I remember once, in Provincetown, looking out at the expanse of the ocean and seeing out of the corner of my left eye the sun sinking over the horizon, while out of the corner of my right eye the full moon was rising over the horizon. For a moment I sensed the Earth as a sphere falling through space. I felt vertiginous.

I’ve written a history of liquid-fuelled rockets that also encompasses a large slice of twentieth-century world history seen through a particular lens. But what inspired me is that curious quality we have as individuals of looking out at the world and not back on ourselves. Arguably we know ourselves least of all. I was struck that there was a particular moment in history in which someone first saw the whole of our home planet from the outside, and that it happened only 50 years ago.

You mention things like Gaia Theory (late 1970s) and The Lindisfarne Association (1972) as having sprung into existence partially as a result of the kinds of images of Earth from space. But I also wonder if the counterculture movement and the long arc of the sixties were cultural antecedents to these kinds of syncretic philosophies and ideologies, perhaps even more so than Earth-gazing images. What do you think?

Carl Sagan once famously said that if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, first you must make a universe. He meant that if we’re not careful all causes relentlessly lead us back to the beginning of the universe. There are dangers in starting any explanation too far back in time: the danger being that we miss the main influences. For example, I sometimes despair of neo-Darwinist genetic explanations of human behavior that end up telling some story about how we must have behaved in the Stone Age rather than pointing to any specific genes. Writing this book I did wonder whether I should start with Plato, who seems to have been the first to describe the Earth as seen from the outside, but instead decided to get a bit closer to the action.

Earthrise may have catalyzed Gaia but the origins of the theory can be traced back much further. The first balloonists noted that seen from a few miles up the Earth looked like a brilliantly patterned living creature. The word "ecology" was coined late in the nineteenth century (though it wasn’t used widely until the 1960s). The Russian geologist Vladimir Vernadsky started to use neologisms like "geosphere," "biosphere" and "noosphere" in the 1920s. And then, as you say, in the 1960s there was the counterculture movement.

One of the leading lights of the counterculture culture was the rock promoter Stewart Brand, who in 1966 had started a campaign to persuade NASA to release an image of the whole Earth. In fact, at the time no such image existed. The first color image of the whole Earth was beamed back to Earth from a satellite the following year. It wasn’t a particularly high-quality image and appears to have had little lasting effect, even though the Washington Post went into color and reproduced the image on its front page. We don’t know if Brand’s campaign had any effect but he was certainly tuned into the zeitgeist. In 1968 Brand published the first edition of his counterculture magazine the Whole Earth Catalog, promoting communal living and a self-sufficient lifestyle. It has been estimated that 10 million Americans were then living in communes. The first issue had a print run of a thousand copies. Four years later, the last issue was published by Penguin with a print run of a million copies. First to last the magazine neatly spanned the Apollo era.

So yes, there were all kinds of currents that fed into the rise of environmentalism. The last issue of the Whole Earth Catalog had the Earthrise photograph on its cover, which surely makes it impossible to say which had the greater effect. Who would want to try and unravel the zeitgeist? In writing this book I chose the lens of rockets and that has allowed me to find a route through twentieth-century history, but of course there are many lenses. That’s the point of the book really, that it is possible to hold many different perspectives at the same time. It is, for instance, perfectly possible to be both a nationalist and a globalist; indeed, both may be desirable viewpoints in different circumstances, something I wish certain politicians today could grasp.

People who live in cities and urban areas tend to be more liberal than those who live in rural areas. Some think that this is loosely the effect of what living in cities does to our perspectives — it puts us in closer proximity with diverse groups of people, of all different races/creeds/religions, and thus we learn more empathy for those who are different, effecting a liberal political outlook. I was wondering if you might see this as akin to what occurs to those who've seen Earth from space — in other words, are there other ways that one might learn a "grand perspective," and thus change one's worldview?

That city populations tend to be more liberal is verifiably true, but the reasons why it is true are always going to be fraught. When we consider humans at the human scale -- whether as doctors or as sociologists -- any explanation has to take account of both the objectiveness of the experiments and the subjectivity (because we are dealing with human beings) of the interpretation of the experimental results. Storytelling from neodarwinists is to be regretted (their explanations should, at least in part, be about genes), storytelling from sociologists is inevitable. Sociologists must, like all scientists, construct good experiments, but just as important is how the results are interpreted. When addressing human behavior, that interpretation always ends up being some kind of fiction.

Human beings are more elusive than any theory or any interpretation of that theory. We are never fully explained by any story we tell about ourselves; hence, I suppose, the lasting value of novels. Perhaps cities do make people more empathetic, but we might also just as well wonder if those who were already more empathetic in the first place are drawn to city life where they can be among their own, in some kind of vicious circle that reinforces the politics of both town and country citizenships.

But putting all that to one side, and allowing myself to believe that it is true that cities actually make us more empathetic, then yes I am inclined to believe that there are many different ways in which a human being might be shocked into some moment of greater understanding; living in a diverse city, or seeing the Earth from space being among them. A widening of consciousness might also come from reading a novel or looking at a painting, or more mundanely as a response to the hurt caused to another human being. It might come as a result of the feeling of fellowship experienced at church, or out of meditation. It might, too, arrive at some random moment while one is looking out the window and for no discernible reason at all. But as Buddhism acknowledges, to become enlightened is not enough, it’s what you do in the world as a result of that enlarged consciousness that matters. Nor is enlightenment a once and for all change; it needs be continually replenished and re-found.

If seeing the Earth from space was and is just one way in which we might change the way in which we see and understand ourselves, perhaps here is a clue to how we might promote space travel that is more enlarging than the reasons usually given. "I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space," Stephen Hawking once wrote: "It’s time to free ourselves from Mother Earth." This idea has been around since the time of Jules Verne (who wrote of "certain narrow-minded people, who would shut up the human race upon this globe") and the Russian cosmists of the early twentieth century, who believed that mankind would find eternal resurrection in space. "Earth is our cradle," wrote cosmist and founding father of rocket science Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, "but one cannot live in a cradle forever." The obvious danger of such a fervent and curious belief is the possibility that actually the Earth is our true home, not "out there." Everything is put at risk -- all life on Earth -- for the sake of this dangerous article of faith. Even worse is the belief that we should explore space because, having trashed this planet, we must find another home (with the implication that the cycle might then begin all over again). There is something utopian about all our current visions of space exploration, and something both dispiriting and fantastical about the motivation for space travel that tells us that we must find another home because we will at some point have to give upon this one because we have exhausted it.

Instead of all this nihilism, how much more illuminating would it be if we were to acknowledge, as we attempt to leave the Earth, that we may never work out how to leave. What if we were to discover, as we find out more about ourselves as seen from the outside, that we are more integrated into the Earth than we had ever imagined, and that humans are not transplantable. If this were even acknowledged as a possible justification for space travel, how much more urgently would we embrace the need to explore the world beyond this world, not in order to escape our home planet but in order to work out how we might better look after our own true home, and break the cycle of human history that ravages, moves in, and lays waste.

For me, the most powerful secular understanding of that moment when human beings first saw the Earth from space was made by, of all people, the then Pope, Paul VI. "The stature of man," he said in a statement made soon after Apollo 8 splashed back down to Earth, "in prodigious confrontation with the cosmos emerges immensely small and immensely large." Science finds out powerful descriptions of the world at different scales, but when confronted with either the universe or by human beings, we may to acknowledge that there is no perspective to be had.

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Christopher Potter's new book, "The Earth Gazers: On Seeing Ourselves," is available now from Pegasus Books. 

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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