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Earthrise, Fifty Years Later

In December of 1968, a particularly difficult year in the U.S. and elsewhere, NASA’s Apollo 8 mission offered a moment of hope and beauty. Launched on December 21, the mission achieved many important “firsts” critical to achieving the moon landing, which would eventually happen halfway through 1969 — first (manned) launch from the Kennedy Space Center, first crewed flight of the behemoth Saturn V rocket, first humans past high Earth orbit, first humans to the moon, around the moon, back from the moon, first live TV images of the lunar surface.

But it was one of the first still color photographs taken by a human (Bill Anders) from deep space that became a provocative and enduring symbol of the beauty and fragility of our blue planet. It came to be known as “Earthrise,” and it was taken on December 24, 1968.

Here’s a poem from my collection, “Moon Shot,” inspired by the taking of this photograph:

Image #14-2383

            Apollo 8

Sometimes the best-laid mission plan,
tidy and typed in carbon triplicate
will miss something, even
with the laser-vision of all those eyes.

Sometimes, the mission itself
shifts as it unfolds,
as you’re breathless in the thrill
of hitting goals no one had thought
to set down on paper.

For instance
if you’re prepping
to be the first guys to fly out to the moon—
not land on it, just everything but
you’ll have studied your lunar maps,
the photographs snapped
by the machines sent in advance
who knew only to obey the crude code
with which they were programmed.

And NASA will have outfitted you
with all the best cameras and lenses they could find
and a list – such a list – of targets
to capture in color and black and white:
rilles, craters, debris fields, potential landing sites,
boulders, valleys, constellations.

But your exhaustive and specific list
will omit one simple thing,
and you won’t realize it until,
on the third lunar orbit,
freshly trimmed from an ellipse to a circle,
and “heads up” for the first time, you see

the earth
rising, improbably, fantastically,
from beneath the moon’s horizon.

You’re so well-trained
that your initial impulse
is to stick to mission, stick
to ticking off that list
everybody agreed on
back there on the ground

but the earth

the earth is coming up
over the moon
rising
like the moon
like the sun
like

like nothing you have a metaphor for
and you are so well-trained

that you can still reach just past
the mission-bound edges of that training
and snap the color photographs
not on the checklist,
the photographs no one knew
would need to be taken –

the now-ubiquitous whole earth,
blue and borderless and feathered
with clouds,

dangling in the void

our precariousness
our us-ness
no longer an abstraction.

Who knows what lunar ravine,
what highlands or nameless maria
lost their place in the queue
so that everything we knew
could shift into new focus,
so we could be remade, albeit briefly,
by just a glance at this first true likeness
of ourselves?

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Making it home, April 1970

Forty-five years ago this month, the “failed” Apollo 13 mission actually became “NASA’s finest hour” because of the incredible creative and technical work done by so many folks to bring the crew back home. The story of Apollo 13, which first unfolded the week after I was born (!) was what first inspired me, years ago, to retell some Apollo space program stories via poetry. In the spirit of turning failures into successes, and in honor of the great feats of Apollo 13, here’s one of the poems.

Trajectories

–Apollo 13

To make it home, they had to keep
hurtling away from Earth, gathered by gravity
into lunar orbit, the dark side never
quite this dark before.

Until the final burn they wouldn’t be allowed
to hold Earth in the window, where it belonged,
to burst towards it rather than let it fade
over their shoulders, shrinking to moon-size.

They had to turn their backs on home
and trust the stripped-down physics
of momentum and return.  They had to surrender
to the old forces and attractions.

To make it home, they had to fly away
from every instinct urging them to turn
around right there, as if the crippled craft
could turn on such a thin dime.

They had to believe in the machine,
that the spindly lunar lander as lifeboat
could do everything it wasn’t designed to do —
like them, it was supposed to go to the moon.

The nature of the adventure shifted
from the journey to the return — coming home
was the new, untried frontier
as Cronkite called the play-by-play.

To make it home, they had to resurrect
the old imperatives, re-enter the race
that had already been run and won,
they had to want to make it home

like they wanted to make it to the moon.

–Liz Ahl (originally published in Salt River Review #38, 2010)