Reflecting on Earthrise: 50 years on
21 December 2018
Monday 24 December marks 50 years since Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders snapped an iconic image of Earth rising above the lunar surface.
The image, known as Earthrise, has been credited with sparking an environmental movement. Now, head of ESA’s Astronaut Centre in Cologne Germany Frank De Winne shares his perspective on our planet seen from space.
Though Frank does not recall the Earthrise photo from childhood, he remembers the Moon landing clearly.
“My parents woke me up to watch it. Having to get up in the middle of the night to watch television was very impressive,” he says.
Little did he know one day he would be among the ranks of those who fly to space, spending 198 non-consecutive days orbiting Earth and gaining a whole new outlook on the planet we call home.
Frank says every experience in life has an impact, but the fragility of our planet, the thinness of our atmosphere and the immense nature of the universe strikes you when you fly into space.
“The other part of course is that in space there are no borders,” he explains. “You can look as much as you want, but you cannot see a border between Germany and Poland and Poland and Ukraine. We have spent thousands of years fighting over imaginary lines on a map that are simply not evident from orbit.”
Author Frank White calls this shift in awareness the “overview effect” and says, while the ideas Frank De Winne and many other astronauts describe are known to us intellectually, it is the direct experience that makes them so powerful.
“Some of the astronauts I interviewed talked about going to the Grand Canyon in the United States – you can describe it, you can talk about it, you can try to explain it to people, but that is not the experience,” he explains.
Despite this, he believes the Earthrise image, and imagery captured by astronauts like ESA’s Alexander Gerst, does play a vital role in helping us better understand our place in the universe and the need for global thinking.
“Earthrise amplified the environmental movement here on Earth. It is a good example of how, by sharing their experiences with people who may not have the opportunity to travel to space, astronauts can influence our thinking and behaviour.”
For Frank De Winne, the overview effect remains ever-present, but these days he looks to the Moon.
“We have come a long way since this photo was taken,” he says. “We landed on the Moon six times. ESA’s Rosetta orbiter landed on a comet, probes and rovers have landed on Mars, we are working together with five international partners and many more countries on the International Space Station.
“Now it is time to take the next step and go forward to the Moon – not to plant a flag and be first, but to truly explore as an international community for the benefit of Earth. That is our vision for Europe.”