Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a happy new year

Apollo 8 Earthrise
Image Credit: NASA

Forty years ago today, humans circled the moon for the first time, when Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders safely slipped into lunar orbit. At the end of a three day journey to the moon, the astronauts must have been greatly relieved when their rockets fired, their module slowed (else it would have continued on into deep space), and the Earth appeared to rise over the moon for the first time. The above picture, "Earthrise," is one of those enduring and iconic moments of human history.

In the above picture, the Earth is only a quarter million miles away; the sun is still another 93 million miles away, the nearest known star is about 25 trillion miles away. And yet, from that relatively nearby vantage, look how small the Earth looks. For no matter how it seems, our planet is small; us denizens of its outermost layer inhabit but the tiniest shell of a tiny globe in an incomprehensibly vast Universe.

Apollo 8 was launched at the end of 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in recent American history. 1968 had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the end of the Prague Spring with the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. The success of Apollo 8 gave a positive end to a dismal year.

This year hasn't exactly been a stellar one, either. As we head out of 2008 and into 2009, there's a lot of uncertainty regarding the economy, wars are still raging around the globe, and many of us just don't know what the future holds. There are some signs of hope; maybe 2009 will be better. We can only hope.

I am travelling for the holidays now, so this will probably be my last post for the year. Next time you hear from me, the Year of Astronomy will be underway; there are lots of exciting activities planned that I'll be blogging about soon.

I'll end with Frank Borman's message to all of us as he delivered it in 1968:

"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth."

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