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Earthrise

"This transmission is coming to you approximately halfway between the Moon and the Earth. We have been 31 hours and about 20 minutes into flight. We have about less than 40 hours left to go to the Moon."

Forty-two years ago this week, astronaut Frank Borman, commander of Apollo 8, began a television broadcast with these words. Two days earlier, he and fellow astronauts Bill Anders and Jim Lovell had embarked on the first interplanetary voyage in human history. The mission's purpose originally was to test rendezvous and docking procedures in Earth orbit, but because of delays in lunar module (LM) development, it was decided to change the mission to a flight to the moon. The purpose now was to explore translunar flight and lunar orbit procedures in preparation for later missions. Rumors that the Soviet Union was also planning a similar manned circumlunar mission further spurred the decision.

It was ultimately this political reality and not scientific curiosity that motivated the US government to spend an estimated $25 billion on the Apollo program, equivalent to over $170 billion today. Such a program would be unthinkable in today's political climate, but the relative prosperity and cold-war passions of the 1960s made it possible.

Whatever its motives, the Apollo program was responsible for one of the most profound awakenings in human history. One of the best-known products of the Apollo 8 mission was this photo, showing the Earth rising over the lunar surface as the spacecraft orbited.

Earthrise - Apollo 8

Volumes have been written about this one photograph and its effect on the human psyche. Seeing the entire Earth for the first time as a distant, magnificent jewel suspended in the vast blackness of space forever changed the way we human beings think of our home. The Apollo missions afforded us the ultimate perspective on the Earth: close enough to recognize it as our blue and beautiful planet, but distant enough to make abundantly clear its utter isolation and fragility.

However profound the effect of this one image, I believe it's just one spectacular example of the experience of flight. In truth, pilots have been viewing our Earth from a unique and compelling perspective since the dawn of aviation. Even a low-altitude flight in a Piper Cub offers a fundamentally different experience of our world, on a small and intimate scale, than is possible from our usual ground-bound vantage point. I believe this is one of the main reasons that the experience of flight is so revelatory for so many people and that a craving and longing for that perspective is a powerful component of what we call the "flying bug."

There's an irony in this perspective in that the very technology that makes it possible contributes, in however small a way, to damaging our magnificent Earth. That's why I'm so excited about recent research into sustainable flight technologies, such as electric propulsion and algal biofuels. (See my posts from earlier this year about the CAFE Foundation's annual Electric Aircraft Symposia.) It's also why I try to share the insights I've gained from flying small aircraft with as many people as possible.

The Earthrise photograph and the unprecedented perspective it made possible, like all insights born of flight, have come at great cost. Are they worth it? That's up to us.

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