NASA’s overlooked duty to look inward

Elisa Gabbert writes: In 1942, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote an essay called “The Image of Victory,” in which he asked what winning the Second World War, the “airman’s war,” would mean for posterity. MacLeish believed that pilots could do more than bring victory; by literally rising above the conflicts on the ground, they could also reshape our very understanding of the planet. “Never in all their history have men been able truly to conceive of the world as one: a single sphere, a globe, having the qualities of a globe, a round earth in which all the directions eventually meet, in which there is no center because every point, or none, is center — an equal earth which all men occupy as equals,” he wrote. The airplane, he felt, was both an engine of perspective and a symbol of unity.

MacLeish could not, perhaps, have imagined the sight of a truly whole Earth. But, twenty-six years after his essay appeared, the three-man crew of Apollo 8 reached the highest vantage point in history, becoming the first humans to witness Earth rising over the surface of the moon. The most iconic photograph of our planet, popularly known as “The Blue Marble,” was taken by their successors on Apollo 17, in 1972. In it, Earth appears in crisp focus, brightly lit, as in studio portraiture, against a black backdrop. The picture clicked with the cultural moment. As the neuroscientist Gregory Petsko observed, in 2011, in an essay on the consciousness-shifting power of images, it became a symbol of the budding environmentalist movement. “Our whole planet suddenly, in this image, seemed tiny, vulnerable, and incredibly lonely against the vast blackness of the cosmos,” Petsko wrote. “Regional conflict and petty differences could be dismissed as trivial compared with environmental dangers that threatened all of humanity.” Apollo 17 marked America’s last mission to the moon, and the last time that humans left Earth’s orbit.

It was always part of NASA’s mission to look inward, not just outward. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which established the agency, claimed as its first objective “the expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” NASA’s early weather satellites were followed, in the seventies and eighties, by a slew of more advanced instruments, which supplied data on the ozone layer, crops and vegetation, and even insect infestations. They allowed scientists to recognize and measure the symptoms of climate change, and their decades’ worth of data helped the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conclude, in 2007, that global warming is “very likely” anthropogenic. According to a report released last month by NASA’s inspector general, the agency’s Earth Science Division helps commercial, government, and military organizations around the world locate areas at risk for storm-related flooding, predict malaria outbreaks, develop wildfire models, assess air quality, identify remote volcanoes whose toxic emissions contribute to acid rain, and determine the precise length of a day. [Continue reading…]

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