Earthrise, the Wall, and the Government Shutdown

Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore
on Christmas Eve 2018

Fifty years ago today—Christmas Eve 1968–the crew of Apollo 8, the first humans ever to reach the moon, read the first 10 verses of Genesis to earthlings below. It is hard to imagine that even the most tough-minded atheist or the biggest grinch were unmoved. Later the astronauts recalled how seeing earthrise—our planet breathtakingly beautiful, lonely and fragile in the star-splashed blackness of space—was a profound experience that changed forever their view of the planet and of life. The image has been credited with galvanizing the environmental movement.

Earthrise from Apollo 8 December 24, 1968 (NASA)

The year 1968 was, like 2018, dizzying and perilous, with war, violence, anger and division across the nation and the globe. But the mission, with its iconic photograph of earth, gave people a brief respite. At 66, I can remember the continual sense of disorientation that year—and the sweet relief of the Christmas Eve broadcast and successful return of the crew. In an interview with NPR, author Robert Kurson, who earlier this year published “Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon,” recalled: “At the end of 1968, when Apollo 8 splashed down, you saw hippies hugging old men in the streets – something that was unthinkable just six days before that.” The spirit of that time—of hope against the backdrop of an increasingly absurd war in Vietnam and civil unrest– is captured in this clip of the song “Good Morning Starshine” from the movie “Hair.”

It strikes me that no image since has done as much to raise consciousness–a much overused term—than that picture of our lonely planet floating in space. But the iconic image this December 24 is of national monuments shuttered by Trump’s insistence that a “wall” must be built, other priorities be damned. A wall to keep others out and shut us off from the world is, sadly, a perfect metaphor for our current state of being.

Human beings continue to ravage and warm the earth, kill each other over land, religion and ideology, and perpetuate cruelty against humans and other sentient beings. I do not, however want to end on an entirely bleak note. The current political administration has done far more to awaken people to the importance of political and social involvement than any other political event in decades. And that is certainly something for which we can all be grateful.

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