The U.S. is shooting for the moon, again. In March, Vice President Mike Pence said he wants to see a NASA lunar mission in the next five years. While experts debate the reality of this goal, the astronauts who already visited the moon nearly 50 years ago as part of the Apollo missions have spent time reflecting on how the experience changed them.
Basil Hero, a former investigative reporter with NBC, spoke with nearly all of the surviving men who left Earth’s orbit and went to our lunar neighbor for his new book, Mission of a Lifetime: Lessons From The Men Who Went To The Moon.
The takeaway: their journeys gave us the first glimpse of Earth from outer space and forever changed how we view our planet.
“They went to explore the moon, and really discovered the earth,” Hero says. “They were out there for 10, 12 days in a vacuum-sealed environment and breathing nothing but pure oxygen. When they returned to Earth, they realized that they were in fact in paradise,” Hero says.
The temporary estrangement from our planet shifted their thinking. “It altered their perception of time, of happiness---suddenly they realized all the earthly squabbles we engage in are in effect meaningless.”
And the astronauts brought a sense of human smallness back to Earth with them.
As Apollo 8 circled the moon, NASA instructed its astronauts to photograph the lunar surface in preparation for the upcoming landing. But after a few orbits, the astronauts went off script. They turned the camera around and took a picture of Earth rising over the moon’s horizon. The photograph would spread around the world and fuel the fledging environmental movement.
The Apollo missions also provided a rare moment of global unity. “When the astronauts went on a global tour, it wasn’t the media saying, ‘the Americans did this.’ It was, ‘We did this,’” Hero says. “It was just this brief moment where humanity as a collective said, 'Oh my God, we accomplished this.'”
As we approach a new era of human space exploration, Hero says the late Neil Armstrong shared a note of caution to temper our ambitions.
“He believed that we had not evolved enough as a species to colonize the rest of the universe,” Hero said.
The veteran astronaut asked, “What is it that we're going to be exporting?”
Heather Goldstone is executive producer of Living Lab Radio.