The real founders of Earth Day were not the politicians who rode the wave of environmental consciousness that swept the public in the late 60s and early 70s to establish the logistics of the organization. Nor was it the United Nations or peace and environmental activists who jumped on board the train when it became apparent that people across the world were demanding action to solve the environmental problems of the day.
No, it was the scientists, engineers and courageous astronauts who took us to the Moon. For it was as a result of their actions, photographs and stories that our perspectives of our small planet changed forever. Indeed, their most important legacy may very well be how their work was a catalyst for a profound philosophical transformation, without which Earth Day and most of the modern environmental movement, would never have taken off.
Yes, as a former aerospace engineer and space exploration enthusiast, I admit that am biased. But consider the history:
It wasn't long after the start of the space race that we started to see a new appreciation for the Earth on the part of many of the astronauts. Take, for example the following quote from Apollo 14 lunar module pilot Edgar Mitchell, where he describes Earth rise over the Moon:
Suddenly from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel - a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery... It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth... home.
Mitchell was not unique among the astronauts. Consider what Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott said:
It truly is an oasis, and we don't take very good care of it. And I think the elevation of that awareness is a real contribution to, you know, saving the earth if you will.
Or how about Alan Shepard, the first American in space and the Commander of Apollo 14:
I realized up there that our planet is not infinite. It's fragile. That may not be obvious to a lot of folks, and it's tough that people are fighting each other here on Earth instead of trying to get together and live on this planet. We look pretty vulnerable in the darkness of space.
Apollo 15 Lunar Module Pilot, Jim Irwin's quote is especially meaningful and beautiful:
The earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally, it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that, if you touched it with a finger, it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.
I met Colonel Irwin and spoke with him shortly before he passed away in 1991. He even signed a photograph of him saluting the flag on the Moon (right) for me, one of my most cherished possessions. He was amazing.
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