I’m a bit surprised no one (including myself) mentioned this in class today as we were looking at spacey things and taking spacey pictures, but today (April 12) is the 55th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human being to orbit the Earth. Kind of neat to think that the dot we saw in the sky also had people inside of it.
Here’s a cool article from the Smithsonian from a few years back about Yuri’s day.
I think it’s also important to consider the profound implications for our self awareness as individuals, as a species, and as residents of this planet that space travel has allowed, especially vis-a-vis photography. The following two photos, Earthrise, and the Pale Blue Dot, were taken from an Apollo spacecraft orbiting the moon, and the Voyager probe somewhere near Saturn, respectively. These two photos have influenced countless numbers of people and have helped inspire the environmentalist movement of the past several decades.
The late astronomer Carl Sagan gave possibly the best description of this photo, snapped by a robot 6 billion kilometers from Earth:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”