Our Place In The Universe

An image from the Cassini spacecraft shows Earth as a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn.
Credit – Space Science Institute/JPL-Caltech/NASA

Thanks to the leaps in satellite technology, undertaken by NASA and others, as well as scientific advances as a result of humanity’s efforts to conduct space travel, there now exist many unique images of the Earth, taken from a number of different perspectives, and as living, cognitive beings in the 21st century of recorded human history, we have been privileged to have the opportunity to view the earth in ways that were impossible only 60 years ago. Many creative and innovative methods of photographing the Earth from above, from aerial photographs taken by kites, balloons, and even carrier pigeons, to those from airplanes and early attempts at rocketry, all contributed to our perspective in interesting ways. It would take several years after the advent of human space flight to finally accomplish the task of taking a photograph of the entire earth. On November 17th, 1967, the NASA/ATS-3 synchronous satellite, orbiting the earth at a distance of 22,300 miles, directly above the Amazon River, took the image below utilizing an Electronic Image Systems Photorecorder, transmitting the image to the Weather Satellite Ground station in Rosman, North Carolina:

I received a print of this photograph from the original negative, described as the “first color photo ever made of the entire earth,” as a result of my father’s employment at the Missile and Space Division of the General Electric Company, engaged in the effort to put an American astronaut on the moon. The souvenir photo was presented to me at age 15 as a gift intended to inspire and encourage my interest in all things related to space travel and to astronomy. I have lovingly preserved the image these many years, and although it is beginning to show its age, it still holds a particular fascination for me, and continues to inspire and encourage my interest in the perspective only possible to achieve from stepping away from the earth-bound view of life.

Most people remember the iconic image of the Earth from the moon taken in 1968 by the Apollo astronauts on their way to orbiting that nearest extraterrestrial orb, and in some ways, the simple fact that it was a cognitive human person recording that image on his way to the moon that gave it much of its appeal, but it was on August 23, 1966 that we first got to see the Earth from the vicinity of the moon, in an image taken by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter I:

Many astonishing and beautiful images of the earth from spacecraft orbiting the Earth have been recorded over the years, from John Glenn’s initial orbits of the Earth in February of 1962, to the many views of our planet recorded from the space shuttle flights, all the way to those being made available regularly from the International Space Station. As our technology progressed, we found new and interesting ways to record our place in the universe, and the image below, recorded in 1977 by the Voyager I spacecraft, shows both the Earth and the Moon in the blackness of space:

The image at the top of this post, recently sent from the Cassini spacecraft, recorded at a distance of only 900 million miles, is reminiscent of the very last image from Voyager II in 1990, which was taken just before the batteries ran out, at a distance of approximately 3.7 billion miles away. Carl Sagan famously used the photograph as a launch point for his book, “Pale Blue Dot, A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”

The perspective available to us as a result of these accomplishments, aside from being humbling and awe-inspiring, is one that we have only recently begun to appreciate more fully. We still have all the squabbling and competition among peoples and nations all over the globe, but we have far less of an excuse for not recognizing just how small our home planet looms against the immensity of the galaxy and indeed the whole known universe. We will eventually have to recognize the need to bring all people and nations together into a cooperative organized union of nations in order to preserve the Earth for future generations. Our place in the universe is not yet fully developed, nor do we seem any closer to bringing the people of the world together when we look at the conflicts and trouble spots in the world.

We hold the future of our species in our hands now. We are the caretakers of the earth presently, and the path ahead has some real challenges if we are to leave a sustainable and reasonably livable Earth to our children and grandchildren. Our place in the universe is uncertain in some ways, but we can work toward a greater understanding of our fellow cognitive beings and what it is that gives us our unique perspective. This is my hope in contributing to this blog–to join with all the other voices that are pressing us forward to a more sustainable future, and to achieving a greater appreciation of our privilege as Earth’s caretakers. The subjective experience of consciousness is the door through which we bring to fruition, the future of our fragile place in the universe.

4 thoughts on “Our Place In The Universe

  1. I have seen that photo of Earth taken from the moon many many times over the years and it never fails to fill me with wonder. I really fear for the future of our planet now though; not only the environmental crisis but also the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of aggressive nations.

    1. Bev,

      You are right to be concerned about what we humans are doing to contribute to the environmental crisis, and I think it’s safe to say we need to be very concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, no matter in whose hands they might be. While there are definitive steps we can take to lessen our impact on the Earth’s environment, any serious crisis involving nuclear weapons could lead to an unknown degree of harm to the Earth and is, in some important ways, an even more serious problem. The lessons of history are not being remembered very well by our 21st century leaders, and the images of our singular, fragile platform of human life should show everyone just how urgent these concerns are for us to address. Your comment shows that the images can succeed in this regard.

      While specific measures to curtail global warming and to eliminate nuclear fears are important and urgent, it is my belief that examining why we lack an appreciation for the underlying causes of these issues, is the only real means of correcting the current trajectory of global progress. It’s true that when a pipe bursts in your basement, you need to address the immediate situation by cutting off the flow of water coming into your house, but if you don’t also then take a long look at the condition of the remaining pipes, and take steps to correct the underlying problem which caused the flood in the first place, the issue will continue to plague you until you run out of pipes.

      Humanity needs the Earth in order to survive, and aside from looking for ways of correcting obvious deficiencies, we also should turn inward and re-examine what is most important to us as human beings. If we can understand better what it is that makes us human, and gain in our appreciation of the value of our place as the caretakers of this singular, miraculous, and beautiful Earth, we may find that our capacities for extending our sustainability will increase exponentially.

      The subjective experience of our very human version of consciousness provides us with the necessary foundation needed to solve these issues, and connects us to the wide universe in a way that begins with the wonder that fills you when you see the Earth as it truly exists–a tiny pinpoint in the vast universe–and leads us to perceive our connection to that which we cannot see–the human spirit–the manifestation of a transcendent and universal consciousness, which is the foundation of all existence.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment…John H.

  2. Powerful photos that seem to have changed our perspective, especially over time as they are assimilated into the culture and then taken for granted.
    Your dad worked for GE on the space program? Very cool! My dad worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, where I grew up. He was a research and design engineer and contributed to the space program and also to the neutrino project.

    1. These images truly are much more astonishing to those of us who grew up before they became so commonplace, and I still remember vividly the excitement caused by each new iteration as the imaging technology expanded.

      Today’s young people are more accustomed to seeing such marvels as the images from the Hubble space telescope and seem to take it more in stride. Modern science and Cosmology have made the extraordinary more ordinary, but not for me.

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