The Whole Earth in a Prison Cell

bWhole Earth AS11-36-5355HR (detail)y Jim Forest

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong, of the Apollo 11 crew, became the first human being to walk on the moon.

Most people at the time watched the moon landing on television. In my case, I listened to it via a pair of low-tech earphones. I was in a cell fourteen bars wide at Waupun State Prison in central Wisconsin.

Prison had become my temporary home due to an act of protest against the Vietnam War – I was one of fourteen people who burned files of Milwaukee’s nine draft boards. Now I was in the early weeks of serving a two-year sentence – in fact just over one year, given the “good behavior” factor.

My new address was the sort of grim maximum-security prison you see in old James Cagney movies – tier upon tier of cells reached via steel stairways and narrow catwalks. It was a place that seemed black-and white even when seen in color.

It was perhaps more exciting to listen to the moon landing than to see the event on TV. Radio’s advantage has always been to enlist one’s own imagination for all the visual effects. I had plenty of props for my imagination already, after seeing approximately every science fiction film made in the Fifties and having read many volumes of science fiction. Lots of si-fi book covers were embedded in memory.

It was astounding to imagine human beings crossing that dry and airless sea of space, landing, then actually standing – then walking – on the Moon’s low-gravity, dusty surface.

But the main impact of the event came in the days that followed as newspapers and magazines made their way to me full of photos taken by the astronauts in the course of their journey. The whole Earth as seen by human eyes. The Earth rising like a blue marble over the black horizon of the lifeless Moon.

drawing of the table in my cell at Waupun Prison
drawing of the table in my cell at Waupun Prison (click to enlarge)

Then came the biggest surprise of all: a packet from NASA arriving from one of the astronauts (or so I have always presumed) containing an  8-1/2 x 11 inch color photo of the Earth. I doubt the photo could have reached the White House much faster than it reached my prison. The same image was to appear a few months later on the cover of National Geographic Magazine, but even in that case didn’t have the richness of color and detail the actual photo had.

How did this remarkable photo come to me? There was no letter in the envelope. I could only guess.

The Milwaukee 14 trial had received a great deal of press attention, including many articles in The New York Times and later a lengthy essay in The New York Review of Books. Perhaps something I had said during our trial had been read by one of the astronauts and lingered in his memory during the trip to the Moon and back. I could only guess that his sending me a photo of our astonishingly beautiful borderless planet was his way of saying thank you.

another cell decoration: While I was in prison for being part of the Milwaukee 14, my son Ben -- age six at the time -- did this drawing for his Sunday School class. The topic that Sunday was St. Paul. The woman leading the group commented that St Paul was imprisoned for his faith. "So is my dad -- he's in jail right now," Ben responded, then drew this -- me behind bars on one side, a cell with a cross in the center on the other.
another cell decoration: While I was in prison for being part of the Milwaukee 14, my son Ben — age six at the time — did this drawing for his Sunday School class. The topic was St. Paul. The woman leading the group commented that St Paul was imprisoned for his faith. “So is my dad — he’s in jail right now,” Ben responded, then drew this.

The prison administration made it difficult for me to receive the photo – it hadn’t been sent by an “authorized correspondent.” I was given the option of the packet being destroyed or returned-to-sender. After a struggle with the prison bureaucracy, the packet was at last delivered to my cell and for the rest of my time in prison it rested on top of the book-laden table. It was an icon that I often contemplated: this magnificent fragment of creation that God has given us to share and care for, and in which we are called to love and protect each other.

Assuming I was right about the sender being one of the astronauts, the giver of the photo was an officer in the US Air Force and I was an anti-war protester locked up in a small cell in middle America. How good it was to feel the bond between us.

Later on I came upon this statement from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth human being to walk on the moon:

“[Looking at the Earth from the moon] you develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”

* * *

postscript: A Modest Proposal

Showing this photo at a conference in Edinburgh organized by the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain & Ireland on 8 December 2018, the idea occurred to me that it would be a powerful thing were the photo widely worn as a small badge (or button). No words, no accusations, no slogans but just the photo. It would be a challenge to each person who wore it or noticed it: “What can I do to help our small, unbordered planet survive?”

The NASA images are copyright free. Anyone can make badges using any of their Whole Earth photos. The Glasgow Catholic Worker has since decided to produce a thousand badges with the photo plus a surrounding text: “Ours to care for.” At least one other group is planning to produce a badge with just a Whole Earth photo without any text. I’ve just received a first small batch made locally.

* * *


Whole Earth Quotations

I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment. The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied.

— Michael Collins, Gemini 10 & Apollo 11 astronaut, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, 1974.

I have been places and done things you simply would not believe. I feel like saying: I have dangled from a cord a hundred miles up; I have seen the earth eclipsed by the moon, and enjoyed it. I have seen the sun’s true light, unfiltered by any planet’s atmosphere. I have seen the ultimate black of infinity in a stillness undisturbed by any living thing. I do have this secret, this precious thing, that I will always carry with me.”

— Michael Collins, Gemini 10 & Apollo 11 astronaut, Carrying the Fire: An Astronauts Journeys, 1974.

Oddly enough the overriding sensation I got looking at the earth was, my god that little thing is so fragile out there.

— Michael Collins, Apollo 11 astronaut, interview for the 2007 movie In the Shadow of the Moon.

It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.

— Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11; first human being to walk on the Moon

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

— Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut, People magazine, 8 April 1974.

Suddenly, from behind the rim of the Moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth … home.

— Edgar Mitchell

My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity.

—  Edgar Mitchel, Apollo 14 astronaut, “The Way of the Explorer,” 1996.

What beauty. I saw clouds and their light shadows on the distant dear earth…. The water looked like darkish, slightly gleaming spots…. When I watched the horizon, I saw the abrupt, contrasting transition from the earth’s light-colored surface to the absolutely black sky. I enjoyed the rich color spectrum of the earth. It is surrounded by a light blue aureole that gradually darkens, becoming turquoise, dark blue, violet, and finally coal black.

— Yuri Gagarin, first Soviet cosmonaut

When you’re finally up at the moon looking back on earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world and why the hell can’t we learn to live together like decent people.

— Frank Borman, Apollo 8, Newsweek magazine, 23 December 1968.

I think the one overwhelming emotion that we had was when we saw the earth rising in the distance over the lunar landscape … . It makes us realize that we all do exist on one small globe. For from 230,000 miles away it really is a small planet.

— Frank Borman, Apollo 8, press reports, 10 January 1969.

The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me—a small disk, 240,000 miles away. It was hard to think that that little thing held so many problems, so many frustrations. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.

— Frank Borman, Apollo 8, ‘A Science Fiction World—Awesome Forlorn Beauty,’ Life magazine, 17 January 1969.

[The Moon] was a sobering sight, but it didn’t have the impact on me, at least, as the view of the Earth did.

— Frank Borman, Apollo 8, Interview for the PBS TV show Nova, 1999.

It’s tiny out there…it’s inconsequential. It’s ironic that we had come to study the Moon and it was really discovering the Earth.

— Bill Anders, Apollo 8, quoted in the 2008 Discovery TV series When We Left Earth.

We learned a lot about the Moon, but what we really learned was about the Earth. The fact that just from the distance of the Moon you can put your thumb up and you can hide the Earth behind your thumb. Everything that you’ve ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the Earth itself—all behind your thumb. And how insignificant we really all are, but then how fortunate we are to have this body and to be able to enjoy loving here amongst the beauty of the Earth itself.

— Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 & 13 astronaut, interview for the 2007 movie In the Shadow of the Moon.

This planet is not terra firma. It is a delicate flower and it must be cared for. It’s lonely. It’s small. It’s isolated, and there is no resupply. And we are mistreating it. Clearly, the highest loyalty we should have is not to our own country or our own religion or our hometown or even to ourselves. It should be to, number two, the family of man, and number one, the planet at large. This is our home, and this is all we’ve got.

— Scott Carpenter, Mecury 7 astronaut, speech at Millersville University, Pennslyvania. 15 October 1992.

If somebody’d said before the flight, “Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?” I would have say, “No, no way.” But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried.

— Alan Shepard

The world itself looks cleaner and so much more beautiful. Maybe we can make it that way—the way God intended it to be—by giving everybody that new perspective from out in space.

— Roger B Chaffee

It truly is an oasis—and we don’t take very good care of it. I think the elevation of that awareness is a real contribution to saving the Earth.

— Dave Scott, Apollo 9 & 15, interview for the 2007 movie In the Shadow of the Moon.

A Chinese tale tells of some men sent to harm a young girl who, upon seeing her beauty, become her protectors rather than her violators. That’s how I felt seeing the Earth for the first time. I could not help but love and cherish her.

—  Taylor Wang

As we got further and further away, the Earth diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.

— James B. Irwin

No one, it has been said, will ever look at the Moon in the same way again. More significantly can one say that no one will ever look at the earth in the same way. Man had to free himself from earth to perceive both its diminutive place in a solar system and its inestimable value as a life -fostering planet. As earthmen, we may have taken another step into adulthood. We can see our planet earth with detachment, with tenderness, with some shame and pity, but at last also with love.

— Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Earth Shine, 1969.

The apologists for space science always seem over-impressed by engineering trivia and make far too much of non-stick frying pans and perfect ball-bearings. To my mind, the outstanding spin-off from space research is not new technology. The real bonus has been that for the first time in human history we have had a chance to look at the Earth from space, and the information gained from seeing from the outside our azure-green planet in all its global beauty has given rise to a whole new set of questions and answers.

— James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, 1979.

How vast those Orbs must be, and how inconsiderable this Earth, the TheFor the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light—our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.

— Ulf Merbold.

It’s beyond imagination until you actually get up and see it and experience it and feel it.

— Willie McCool

It was a texture. The blackness was so intense.

— Charles Duke

Frequently on the lunar surface I said to myself, “This is the Moon, that is the Earth. I’m really here, I’m really here!

— Alan Bean

What was most significant about the lunar voyage was not that man set foot on the Moon but that they set eye on the earth.

— Norman Cousins, Cosmic Search magazine, volume 1, number 1, January 1979.

“We will fall completely in love with the Earth. When we are in love with someone or something, there is no separation between ourselves and the person or thing we love. We do whatever we can for them and this brings us great joy and nourishment. That is the relationship each of us can have with the Earth. That is the relationship each of us must have with the Earth if the Earth is to survive, and if we are to survive as well.

— Thich Nhat Hanh

Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dry as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming, membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos.

— Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, 1974.

If I’d been born in space, I would desire to visit the beautiful Earth more than to visit space. It’s a wonderful planet.

— David Brown

It’s the abject smallness of the earth that gets you.

— Stuart Roosa, Apollo 14 astronaut, quoted in Rocket Men, 2009.

Man, I tell you, this is worth waiting 16 years for!

—  Deke Slayton, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project astronaut, regards finally getting his first view of the Earth from space. Deke was selected in the first Mercury Seven astronaut class but was grounded for years due to a heart murmur. 15 July 1975.

A tear-drop of green.

— Ron McNair, physicist and NASA astronaut on viewing the Earth from the Space Shuttle, Newsweek magazine, 10 February 1986.

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. The airman’s earth, if free men make it, will be truly round: a globe in practice, not in theory.

— Archibald MacLeish, ‘The Image of Victory,’ commencement address, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, May 1942, later published in A Time to Act, 1943.

To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves a riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know now they are truly brothers.

— Archibald MacLeish, American poet, ‘Riders on earth together, Brothers in eternal cold,’ front page of the New York Times, Christmas Day, 25 December 1968.

When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.

— John Muir, Travels in Alaska, 1915.

Amid this vast and overwhelming space and in these boundless solar archipelagoes, how small is our own sphere, and the earth, what a grain of sand!

— Hippolyte Taine, The Ancient Regime, 1881.

That the sky is brighter than the earth means little unless the earth itself is appreciated and enjoyed. Its beauty loved gives the right to aspire to the radiance of the sunrise and sunset.

— Helen Keller, My Religion, 1927.

There is perhaps no better a demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.

— Carl Sagan, Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University, regards the view of Earth from space, Time magazine, 9 January 1995.

Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1994.

My mental boundaries expanded when I viewed the Earth against a black and uninviting vacuum, yet my country’s rich traditions had conditioned me to look beyond man-made boundaries and prejudices. One does not have to undertake a space flight to come by this feeling.

— Rakesh Sharma

Now I know why I’m here. Not for a closer look at the moon, but to look back at our home, the Earth.

— Alfred Worden

Looking outward to the blackness of space, sprinkled with the glory of a universe of lights, I saw majesty—but no welcome. Below was a welcoming planet. There, contained in the thin, moving, incredibly fragile shell of the biosphere is everything that is dear to you, all the human drama and comedy. That’s where life is; that’s were all the good stuff is.

—  Loren Acton

I left Earth three times and found no other place to go. Please take care of Spaceship Earth.

—  Wally Schirra, 1998.

To fly in space is to see the reality of Earth, alone. The experience changed my life and my attitude toward life itself. I am one of the lucky ones.

— Roberta Bondar, Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years.

The world looks marvelous from up here, so peaceful, so wonderful and so fragile. Everybody, all of us down there, not only in Israel, have to keep it clean and good.

— Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon, 29 January 2003.

The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.

—  Aleksei Leonov

The colors are stunning. In a single view, I see – looking out at the edge of the earth: red at the horizon line, blending to orange and yellow, followed by a thin white line, then light blue, gradually turning to dark blue and various gradually darker shades of gray, then black and a million stars above. It’s breathtaking.

— Willie McCool

We were flying over America and suddenly I saw snow, the first snow we ever saw from orbit. I have never visited America, but I imagined that the arrival of autumn and winter is the same there as in other places, and the process of getting ready for them is the same. And then it struck me that we are all children of our Earth.

— Aleksandr Aleksandrov

The scenery was very beautiful. But I did not see the Great Wall.

— Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut (or ‘yuhangyuan’), 15 October 2003.

As I looked down, I saw a large river meandering slowly along for miles, passing from one country to another without stopping. I also saw huge forests, extending along several borders. And I watched the extent of one ocean touch the shores of separate continents. Two words leaped to mind as I looked down on all this: commonality and interdependence. We are one world.

— John-David Bartoe

Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. “What do I see?” I replied. “Half a world to the left, half a world to the right, I can see it all. The Earth is so small.”

— Vitali Sevastyanov

For those who have seen the Earth from space, and for the hundreds and perhaps thousands more who will, the experience most certainly changes your perspective. The things that we share in our world are far more valuable than those which divide us.

— Donald Williams

My first view — a panorama of brilliant deep blue ocean, shot with shades of green and gray and white — was of atolls and clouds. Close to the window I could see that this Pacific scene in motion was rimmed by the great curved limb of the Earth. It had a thin halo of blue held close, and beyond, black space. I held my breath, but something was missing — I felt strangely unfulfilled. Here was a tremendous visual spectacle, but viewed in silence. There was no grand musical accompaniment; no triumphant, inspired sonata or symphony. Each one of us must write the music of this sphere for ourselves.

— Charles Walker

We went to the Moon as technicians; we returned as humanitarians.

— Edgar Mitchell

The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth.

— Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud

If the space age had opened new ways of seeing mere matter, though, it has also fostered a strange return to something reminiscent of the pre-Copernican universe. The life that Lowell and his like expected elsewhere has not appeared, and so the Earth has become unique again. The now-iconic image of a blue-white planet floating in space, or hanging over the deadly deserts of the moon, reinforces the Earth isolation and specialness. And it is this exceptionalism that drives the current scientific thirst for finding life elsewhere, for finding a cosmic mainstream of animation, even civilization, in which the Earth can take its place. It is both wonderful and unsettling to live on a planet that is unique.

— Oliver Morton, A Point of Warlike Light, 2002.

Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.

— attributed to Sir Fred Hoyle, 1948.

How vast those Orbs must be, and how inconsiderable this Earth, the Theatre upon which all our mighty Designs, all our Navigations, and all our Wars are transacted, is when compared to them. A very fit consideration, and matter of Reflection, for those Kings and Princes who sacrifice the Lives of so many People, only to flatter their Ambition in being Masters of some pitiful corner of this small Spot.

— Christiaan Huygens, The Immense Distance Between the Sun and the Planets, 1698,

We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the earth.

— William Anders

* * *

Whole Earth – Ours to Care For