The above photo was taken 37 years ago today, on September 18, 1977, from the space probe Voyager 1. It is the first photo ever taken of the Earth and Moon together in the same frame (without photographic manipulation, and excepting photos of one taken from the other, like “Earthrise” pictures taken on the Apollo missions). This photo, one of the first beamed back to earth by the Voyager spacecraft, shows our little planetary neighborhood–and underscores how small we are in the grand scheme of the cosmos.
The planetary/deep space probes of the 1970s–the Pioneer and Voyager missions–are, in my opinion, among the most epic voyages of discovery in human history. These tiny machines ran on less power and contained considerably less computing potential than the laptop on which I’m writing this blog–yet they’ve transcended the limits of the solar system and have gone far beyond where any human has ever ventured. Voyager’s mission was to gather information on the solar system, and the photo it took was mainly a test of its systems, but it had the effect of showing us a side of our human condition that we had never seen before. This photo was published in National Geographic and various other publications. If I recall correctly Carl Sagan referred to it in his Cosmos program. It certainly ranks as a uniquely historic photo.
Images of the Earth from space seem to have a curious effect on the people who see them–especially firsthand. Nearly all astronauts, and especially those who went to the Moon on Apollo, report the sight of Earth from space is transformative. The gadgety guts of Voyager 1 may have lacked the human capacity to ruminate on what this photo means, but it was just a robotic explorer sent out into space to do our bidding. It is for us, the humans who built it, to evaluate the meaning of its data–scientific, spiritual and even religious–from our own uniquely human perspectives.