On July 20, 1969, Commander Neil Armstrong descended from the lunar module to become the first human to ever step on the surface of the Moon: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he famously said.

More than 50 years later, the next Moon landings are being prepared with the goal of landing the first woman on the Moon by 2024.

This shows that we are still eager to explore the unknown and grasp the mysteries of the vast, wonderful universe. However, space exploration also puts the value of planet Earth — our only home — in perspective, encouraging us to appreciate its beauty and importance.

Let’s set off on a journey through time and space to understand the change in our perspective after the first Moon landing, how far we have come, and most importantly — why it’s time to bring the focus back down to Earth.

Crescent Earth by Apollo 4, November 1967 and Moon Surface by Apollo 12, November 1969.

Crescent Earth by Apollo 4, November 1967 and Moon Surface by Apollo 12, November 1969. Credit: NASA JPL

An Awe-Inspiring Achievement

In September 1962, John F. Kennedy delivered a breakthrough speech in which he defined space as the “new frontier,” and successfully invoked the pioneer spirit in the name of humanity and peace. His “We choose to go to the Moon” speech inspired many. However, the pessimists were shaking their heads, claiming it would be a nearly impossible task.

After all, we didn’t have the tools to undertake such a task back then. Yet in the following years, NASA and its 400,000 employees worked tirelessly to introduce inventions like spacesuits and landing modules from scratch. Actually, the Apollo flight computer design was the driving force behind early research into microchips, leading to the development of computers and sparking the digital revolution in which we live today.

Despite the technical limitations of the era, some 600 million people (an estimated one fifth of the world population back then) watched the historic broadcast of the first Moon landing seven years after Kennedy’s promise, proving to humanity the incredible goals achievable by collective collaboration.

The two most famous pictures of Earth

The two most famous pictures of Earth: ‘Blue Marble’ by Apollo 17, December 1972, and ‘Earthrise’ by Apollo 8, November 1968. Credit: NASA JPL

Kickstarting Environmentalism

Although some may think the main outcomes of space exploration are the inventions of Velcro and non-sticking pans, or the dreams of holidaying on Mars one day, it has by far more important effects.

First, it allows us to observe and understand both our origins and the principles of physics, energy, matter and time itself. Second, it advances the development of technologies and strategies that can help humanity thrive.

It also has a third consequence that was not foreseen by scientists and engineers: It widens our cosmic perspective, confronting us with the vastness of the universe. It offers a unique point of view to reflect on our home, and on humanity and its endeavors — a point of view that significantly defined the environmentalist movement.

It’s no coincidence that Earth Day (April 22) was established only 15 months after the publication of “Earthrise.” The pacifist and activist John McConnell made flags with the iconic photograph and gave them to the people at the Moon watch of the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. He then had the idea of celebrating Earth Day, the first environmental festival. One year later, Earth Day was officially accepted and has been on our calendars since.

These new views of the Earth from space were an unforeseen revelation. The first missions to other worlds inspired interest in ecology and the protection of the Earth’s environment. At the same time, scientific advances led to a greater understanding of the human impact on the planet.

For the first time, many realized that we had the potential to disrupt or even destroy Earth’s life-support systems. The sense of environmental crisis was intensified by social and political turmoil, something we are seeing again today.

Spaceship Earth: The Bigger Picture

In 1969, the inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller published a striking metaphor for a new ideal of planetary management in a book entitled Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Fuller famously proclaimed, “We are all astronauts,” and argued that techniques developed for managing life in space should be transferred and applied to globally scaled environmental problems on Earth. “We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.”

More books followed — like The Closing Circle (1971) in which Barry Commoner declared his famous four ecological laws, The Limits to Growth (1972) or Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet (1972) — to tackle the big question of what would be required for humanity to continue to thrive.

Former NASA employee James Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis released the Gaia Hypothesis in 1974, a piece that proposed to look at planet Earth as a living organism, an integrated entity with interlinking geological and biological processes. Despite the initial resistance from the scientific community, the Gaia hypothesis generated many thought-provoking questions and helped to stimulate a holistic approach to studying Earth.

With intellectual audacity, the authors of these books on sustainability at the time were all big-picture, interdisciplinary thinkers. They offered a path-breaking analysis of the challenge of raising living standards for the poor without degrading the environment.

Developed nations needed to acknowledge the damage that they were inflicting on the biosphere and accept that their fate was inseparable from the prospects of the rest of the world. It was clear that many environmental threats were global; planetary interdependence had to become a moral and political reality, not just a hard and inescapable scientific fact.

First Whole Earth Catalog Cover 1968; Life: '100 Photographs That Changed The World' cover 2003; Life Special Issue January 1968 featuring Apollo 8 photograph.

First Whole Earth Catalog Cover 1968; Life: ‘100 Photographs That Changed The World’ cover 2003; Life Special Issue January 1968 featuring Apollo 8 photograph.

A Picture That Moved the World

When the “Earthrise” photo was published soon after Christmas Eve in 1968, the first reactions of the press were of celebration and astonishment. “It boggles the mind,” said the Los Angeles Times. “Man, after thousands of years of life on this planet, has broken the chains that bind him to Earth.”

Some criticism also appeared. “Man can leap over the Moon . . . but he can’t find a way to live at peace with his neighbors;” wrote the Chicago Daily News (Dec. 18, 1968) .

“Why cannot the same kind of mobilization of resources be utilized to meet the nation’s real problems here on Earth?” The New York Times asked (Dec. 28, 1968) .

The first time humans saw our home planet Earth from deep space, from Apollo 8, November 1968

The first time humans saw our home planet Earth from deep space, from Apollo 8, November 1968. Credit: NASA JPL

A Change of Perspective

“We all wanted to see what the moon looked like close up,” said Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, who walked on the Moon in November 1969. “Yet, for most of us, the most memorable sight was not of the moon, but of our beautiful blue and white home, moving majestically around the sun, all alone in infinite black space.”

When seeing the Earth from outer space, we are likely to undergo a cognitive shift that manifests through a sudden realization of a deep connection to our planet. This phenomenon was exhaustively researched by Frank White, which gave it the name of the “Overview Effect” in a book with the same name published in 1987.

So far, only 24 humans have had the chance to see the whole Earth with their own eyes as they ventured into outer space. Imagine the impact of seeing our home planet get smaller and smaller, surrounded by the darkness of space, or observing Earth from the Moon and being able to cover the most precious thing to all of us with just your thumb.

“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, the first man on the moon, July 1969

Astronaut and Earth from Apollo 17, 1972 and Lunar Module and Earth from Apollo 11, 1969

Astronaut and Earth from Apollo 17, 1972 and Lunar Module and Earth from Apollo 11, 1969. Credit: NASA JPL

We can wonder why NASA didn’t think of putting a camera on the Moon pointed toward the Earth, taking high-quality pictures or even broadcasting live. With such a difficult endeavor centered on the Moon, however, it may have been easy to forget to look at the Earth.

Photographs of our planet didn’t appear at all on the official mission plans. They belonged in a miscellaneous category labeled “targets of opportunity” and given the lowest priority. Still, the documentation of the Apollo missions was an important part of it, and the astronauts were trained in photography and equipped with the best cameras available. This resulted in high-quality pictures taken on 70mm film, which still count as some of the best shots of our planet from space.

View from the International Space Station, Expedition 45, 2015.

The view from the International Space Station, Expedition 45, 2015. Credit: NASA Johnson Space Center

Many others still have spectacular views, especially from the International Space Station (ISS) circling the planet in Low Earth Orbit every 90 minutes. They share with us their personal experiences of what it is like to live in microgravity and how it feels to see our planet from space.

Still, what’s important is that most astronauts agree that the experience of seeing our planet from space transformed their perspective.

“We went to the Moon as technicians. We returned as humanitarians,” said Apollo 14 crew member Edgar Mitchell.

The experience has a profound impact on humanity, helping us to understand our place in the universe, giving us a cosmic perspective. Most of us can only imagine what that’s like. However, we can simulate this sensation partially through pictures, astronomy apps and virtual reality. Such a deep and humbling human experience should encourage us to value our planet and promote collective solutions for its protection. As we learn more about Earth and space in general, we become more aware of how precious our planet is.

Apollo 11, July 1969, while traveling to the moon.

Apollo 11, July 1969, while traveling to the moon. The image has stars added to it to recreate how the astronauts may have experienced the view. Credit: NASA JPL and Eduardo Besai Santana

What We Can Achieve Together

It’s time for humanity to unite with the purpose of finding solutions to climate change and inequality. Leaving business and pride behind, we need to focus on improving our own habitat that we share with all living beings on the Earth.

Let’s face it: We may be living in an age of mass extinction. This doesn’t necessarily mean the extinction of the human race, but the end of a million species of both fauna and flora and the demise of whole ecosystems. Added to that, scientists are predicting scarcity of food and water, and waves of refugees, due to global warming. This will affect humanity drastically, and the lack of resources is likely to generate future conflicts.

We shouldn’t forget that we live in our own inventions. Humans created economy, politics, and industry, so it would be ironic if those inventions ended up destroying our home. Let us rethink and reinvent the game. Some propose a resource-based economy, the United Nations works tirelessly on achieving the global goals, others plant as many trees as they can, and for sure we need to protect the biospheres and the indigenous people.

Astronaut and Earth, Apollo 15, 1971; and the Earth by Apollo 17, 1972.

Astronaut and Earth, Apollo 15, 1971; and the Earth by Apollo 17, 1972. Credit: NASA JPL

The missions to the Moon demonstrated what we can achieve working together. These endeavors also changed the way we view our life on Earth by expanding our cosmic perspective, making us rethink who we really are, and helping us to reconsider our relationship with ourselves, each other and the world around us. Our big mission right now is to create a harmonious and sustainable way of life on our home planet.

There is no better place than space to realize the inherent unity and oneness of everything on Earth, and the irreplaceable value it has for all of us.

The images of Earth from space have a humbling effect. During a time when global warming and inequality call for global actions, these photographs compel us to reflect on Earth as a shared home. They remind and inspire us to come together to face the threats against humanity and our planet.

Although we have a history of seeing ourselves separated by cultural differences and national interests, sooner or later we will end up understanding and accepting that after all, we are one — a single species on a planet with a common destiny.

Eduardo Santana is the founder of Cosmic Watch, the astronomy app that offers a 3D planetarium, detailed sky guide and clock. Santana grew up in Gran Canaria and studied Visual Arts in Zürich, where he specialized in 3D, animation and projections. He went on to work in video production for theater companies and light installations. He teaches video production at the Art School of Basel and is a passionate amateur astronomer and sky gazer.