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The First Men To Have The Whole World In Their Sights

Feb 5, 2018
Originally published on February 4, 2018 9:17 am

Solar eclipses, supermoons, a star-studded night sky — for us earthlings, looking up into space can be a transformative experience.

But what about the other way around? What is it like to see the entire earth from space? Only a select group of astronauts have had that grand opportunity.

"There was actually a physical moment in time when we answered a puzzle — something that's puzzled us throughout the whole of human history: What did the Earth look like from the outside?" says science historian Christopher Potter.

In his new book The Earth Gazers: On Seeing Ourselves, Potter chronicles the people who experienced the view, and how it changed them. One of them is Major General Mike Collins, who has been to space twice. He was the command module pilot for Apollo 11, operating the spacecraft in orbit while fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first steps on the moon. I spoke with both men.


Interview Highlights

Whether seeing the entire Earth at once changed Collins

Collins: It projected to me, at least, a feeling of fragility. And that was a surprise to me. I didn't — you know, trodding on the Earth's surface for 39 years — I didn't think it was very fragile. But from 200,000 miles away: quite fragile. And that was my first impression.

And my second was the fact that it was inhabited. ... It was certainly absolutely no visual certainty, but I sensed, like little black specks — not people, or maybe it was just some aberration, you know, there were little floaters in my eye, I know not what — but anyway, I was conscious of some presence there. And it was not a human presence. I wondered: Who are all those things? What are those little things — those little black things that are scurrying around? How many of them are there? Where are they going? What are they about? Are they happy? And then I thought, oh yeah, I see it now! A flock of geese went right by, and gee, I can see wolves at the timberline. Of course, none of these things were absolute reality. But they were on my mind.

Potter: I'm kind of interested Mike, when you say that you were changed but you didn't know if you were changed for any significant amount of time. Because Charles Lindbergh, when he first saw the Earth from above, you know, to a much lower altitude ... he was the first to fly across the Atlantic [Ocean], aged only 25 in 1927. And he thought — you know, he was very keen on technology in those days — and thought that if we could all have that experience of seeing the earth from even that height, we would all be fundamentally changed as a species.

Whether Collins believes that view was a religious experience, as other astronauts have cited

Collins: No, I think you take into space your religious notions and return with them pretty much unchanged.

Potter: When Apollo 8 was being reported, some of the papers have suggested that here was an opportunity — you know, an extraordinary experience was had out there in space that we don't really have the language [for]. I'm trying to search for the words — I don't really want to use the word "spiritual," so "numinous" is the best I can come up with. And I think in some of the ways that Mike has been talking about that experience, one could say, sort of, "religious."

Collins: Well, we were a crew of three experimental test pilots. I proposed that a crew ought to be a philosopher, a priest and a poet. But they would probably be emoting and conversing about their newfound experiences to the extent they would forget to push in certain circuit breakers, and they would be destroyed upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. So where are we in that panoply, I know not. ...

But gee, we're just getting started. Wait'll we start sending people back to the moon — maybe you will get a philosopher, a priest and a poet. Onto Mars — that's going to be even more extraordinary. And perhaps the reactions of people who see the Earth not as something the size of your thumbnail, but something you can't even find — it looks like a bright star out there — then maybe you will get a different reaction, and answers to some of the things you're looking for.

Denise Guerra and Martha Ann Overland produced and edited the audio of this interview. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Solar eclipses, supermoons, a star-studded night sky - for us earthlings, looking up into space can be a transformative experience. But what about the other way around, seeing Earth from space? Only a select few have had that grand opportunity. In his new book "The Earth Gazers: On Seeing Ourselves," author Christopher Potter chronicles the men who experienced the view and how it changed them. He joins us now from our NPR studios in New York. Welcome to the program.

CHRISTOPHER POTTER: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And also with us is Major General Mike Collins. He has been to space twice. Collins was the command module pilot for Apollo 11. He operated the spacecraft in orbit while fellow astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their first steps on the moon. He joins us now from his home in Marco Island, Fla. It's an honor to have you with us.

MIKE COLLINS: Hi. Nice to be here. Thank you for having me on your program.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Christopher, your book talks about this dramatic history. And there have been a lot of books written about space and this period. Why did you want to write this story? And what is the story of space for you?

POTTER: It actually came out of a sort of idle thought about, what did the earth look like from the outside? And for most of history, the outside was actually from the perspective of being dead because you got to the heavens by crossing the threshold between life and death. Then we began to think, well, actually, you could travel to out there. And then it was a question of, how are we going to do it?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mike Collins, obviously, you were there. You've been one of the few people to have that view. Did it change you? Did you see things differently?

POTTER: Well, you know, when you are around the moon, looking back over 200,000 miles, it projected, to me at least, a feeling of fragility. And that was a surprise to me. I didn't - you know, trotting on the earth's surface for 39 years, I didn't think it was very fragile. But from 200,000 miles away - quite fragile. And that was my first impression. And my second was the fact that it was inhabited. But maybe we ought to come back to that later. I don't want to natter on too long.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, no. You can natter on.

COLLINS: OK. It was certainly, absolutely no visual certainty. But I sensed, like, little, black specks - not people. Or maybe it was just some aberration, you know, little floaters in my eye. I know not what. But anyway, I was conscious of some presence there. And it was not a human presence. And I wondered, who are all those little things? What are those little things? - those little black things that are scurrying around? How many of them are there? Where are they going?

POTTER: Charles Lindbergh, when he first saw the Earth from above, you know, to much lower altitude in the first...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Charles Lindbergh, of course, being one of the fathers of flight.

POTTER: Yes. And he thought - you know, he was very keen on technology in those days and thought that if we could all have that experience of seeing the earth even from that height - that we would be fundamentally changed as a species.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many astronauts have described having that view as a religious experience, as finding God. Did you feel that?

COLLINS: No. I think you take into space your religious notions, and you return with them pretty much unchanged.

POTTER: You know, an extraordinary experience was had out there in space that we don't really have the language, you know? I'm sort of trying to search for the words. I don't really want to use the word spiritual, so numinous is the best I can come up with. And I think in some of the ways that Mike's been talking about that experience - one could say are sort of religious.

COLLINS: Well, we were a crew of three experimental test pilots. I propose that a crew ought to be a philosopher, a priest and a poet. But they would probably be emoting and conversing about their newfound experiences to the extent they would forget to turn - push in certain circuit breakers. And they would be destroyed upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. So where are we in that panoply? I know not.

POTTER: I very much enjoyed your idea of that alternative crew, though I sort of wonder whether those people you cite actually are better at asking questions than they are at answering them.

COLLINS: Yeah. Well, you know, we're discussing this like it's all over and done with, and these conclusions may or may not have ensued. But, gee, we're just getting started. I mean, wait until we start sending people back to the moon. Maybe you will get a philosopher, a priest and a poet onto Mars. That's going to be even more extraordinary and, perhaps, the reactions of people who see the Earth not as something the size of your thumbnail but something you can't even find. It looks like a bright star out there. Then maybe you will get a different reaction and answers to some of the things you're looking for.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Major General Michael Collins of the Apollo 11 moon mission - also author Christopher Potter - his new book is called "The Earth Gazers." Thank you to you both.

POTTER: Thank you very much.

COLLINS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AT THE END OF TIMES, NOTHING'S "RAVELLING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.