On Christmas Eve, 1968, a single photograph, taken from 239,000 miles away, caused just about every person on Earth to shut up for just a minute and consider how small, and fragile, their home really was.
“We went to the moon, and we ended up discovering the earth,” said astronaut Bill Anders, who snapped the photo of our beautiful blue planet hanging in space, juxtaposed against the barren surface of the moon in the foreground. Anders was one of the three crew members of Apollo 8, which had departed Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 21.
“This was the first time we were really sending people to the moon,” says Nicole Stott, a St. Petersburg resident and former astronaut who herself logged 104 days in space between 2009 and 2011. “They weren’t going to land, we knew that. But they were going to go to the moon and go around it – that was pretty incredible on its own. “
That single image, which effectively showed every living creature on earth except the three Apollo 8 astronauts, was a game-changer. “They saw, for the very first time with human eyes, our home rising up above this other planetary body,” Stott says. “That is so incredible.”
Sure, Neil Armstrong walked on the lunar surface eight months later, but the we’re-all-the-same awe and humility inspired by the photo, known as Earthrise, still resonates today.
“I get goosebumps thinking about that,” says Stott, who flew on the International Space Station and walked in space. “We’re landing probes and learning about Mars or Pluto or Saturn, but what is the one picture we’re always looking for? We’re looking for that image that re-connects us to us.”
Stott and three fellow astronauts have come together as an organization they’re calling Constellation to celebrate the historic voyage of Apollo 8. On Dec. 21 – the 50th anniversary of the launch – the group is throwing a party at the Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex.
The event begins in the center’s IMAX theater where several short films, made by the Constellation partner the Planetary Collective, will be screened (included are interviews with all three Apollo 8 crew members). Stott and her colleagues will talk about their experiences in space, and there’ll be music, an astronaut-themed art show and a champagne-provided after party beneath Space Shuttle Atlantis with virtual reality exhibits.
Although it’s not an official NASA event, the space agency has given its blessing, and all exhibits in the Visitor Complex will be open.
The extra-special VIP version of the event also includes an astronaut-hosted pre-party tour of Kennedy’s Apollo/Saturn V center, which includes the actual Apollo 8 Mission Control consoles in an historical re-creation.
Stott was the first astronaut to create a work of art – a small watercolor – in space. She’s a member of the International Association of Astronomical Artists.
Once you’ve been in space, the theory goes, that singular impression of looking back at Planet Earth, that almost inexplicable feeling of awe, never goes away. Author Frank White calls this “The Overview Effect.” In one of the Planetary Collective films, philosopher David Loy says succinctly that the arrival of the Earthrise photo begat “a new kind of self-awareness” among humans.
For Stott and her fellow Constellation members, realizing that Earth is singular and fragile, and should be protected rather than pillaged, is a no-brainer. “I don’t think you have to go to space to feel that, to make that connection to earth and to all the other life that inhabits it,” she says.
And so the Dec. 21 celebration is not only a toast to past accomplishments, it’s a plea for a positive future.
“Part of this event, too, is to reach out to our international astronaut colleagues and invite them onboard,” Stott explains, “so that we can cover the planet with this message and get as many people engaged as possible.”