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An ode to early spaceflight celebrates the transformative effect of viewing Earth from above

The Earth Gazers: On Seeing Ourselves

Christopher Potter
Pegasus Books
2018
470 pp.
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On 17 December 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright performed the first successful controlled flight of a powered aircraft. Less than 60 years later, on 12 April 1961, the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft into orbit around Earth, making him the first human in space. The half-century between these two landmarks in the history of flight saw two world wars, a tense cold war between two nuclear superpowers, and the accelerated advancement of the emergent aerospace industry.

It was no secret that war, conflict, and competition were the driving forces behind the state’s interest in rockets, even if the scientists and engineers claimed loftier goals. So it is quite remarkable that from these pursuits—from countless military and civilian contracts made in the interest of national defense—came some of the most enduring images of a peaceful and fragile Earth.

The most iconic images—the “Earthrise” photograph taken by astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 and the “Blue Marble” photograph of the entire Earth taken by Harrison “Jack” Schmitt on 7 December 1972—were products of NASA’s Apollo program. By some accounts, these images helped to launch a nascent environmental movement and a new political consciousness within the American counterculture. But according to the men who captured them, they hardly do justice to the experience of seeing Earth from a distance, which some have described as a truly spiritual experience.

While Christopher Potter’s title—The Earth Gazers—and much of the book’s thrust focus on the transformative effect of seeing Earth from space, the bulk of it is about the saga of flight, from early aircraft to the Apollo mission. Potter begins his narrative not with the Wright Flyer but with Charles Lindbergh’s historic 1927 flight from New York to Paris, presumably because the famous aviator is a more substantial historical figure and there is a wealth of available published material about his life (22 of the 62 sources listed in the book’s bibliography are either about Lindbergh or written by a Lindbergh).

Lindbergh, in turn, is used to introduce a number of other highlights of early human flight, providing a narrative thread that runs through the book. We learn, for example, that he encountered and admired the American rocketeer Robert Goddard; that he spent time in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, whose ambitions would propel the development of Wernher von Braun’s V-2 rocket; and that he relished the achievements
of the Apollo mission, believing the conquest of space to be akin to the pioneering days of flight.

The book is split into three parts. In the first, the reader is presented with biographical sketches of many of the already well-known figures in the history of aviation, rocketry, and space exploration, including Goddard, von Braun, and to a lesser extent their Russian counterparts, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Sergei Korolev.

NASA

The iconic “Blue Marble” photograph places humanity’s accomplishments and foibles in context.

As the story turns to the first crewed flights into space, the focus turns to individual missions undertaken by the U.S. space program. Part one ends with a brief history of Project Mercury. Part two extends this story from Gemini to Apollo. Potter profiles each mission and provides anecdotes that bring out the personalities of the astronauts.

Although Potter did not conduct any original research, these first two parts of the book are based on a close reading of the published literature. A reader well versed in the history of air and spaceflight will not learn anything new here, but as a nonacademic introduction to the topic, this book will no doubt be appreciated. Potter’s writing style is clear and engaging, and his approach to the subject is thorough, if not scholarly.

As much as this book’s narrative approach to the history of human flight deserves praise, it is not clear what the overall message is meant to be. In the final third of the book, Potter emphasizes the transformative effect of seeing the whole Earth from outside, something only a handful of humans have had the privilege to do. He also laments the failure of NASA to convey this experience effectively to the public, suggesting that it was hamstrung by the insistence of some activist organizations that NASA not tread upon religious ground in its depiction of spaceflight—an issue brought to a head in a 1971 lawsuit waged by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of American Atheists, that was spurred by the Christmas Eve reading of the Book of Genesis by the crew of Apollo 8.

Potter’s clear narrative style gives way to sometimes opaque poetic musing. He alludes to a “metaphysics of space travel” that so far has been lost on humans. He seems to want humankind to find a new understanding of its place in the universe—one that acknowledges our connectedness with the technologies that now surround us and their potential ability to lift us—and sees the technological triumph of Apollo to literally transcend our earthly bonds as a fitting allegory.

About the author

The reviewer is space history curator, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC 20014, USA.