Driftless Dark Skies

John Heasley

This April 22, we celebrate Earth Day for the 50th time. I think we can take some pride in remembering that Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson founded the first Earth Day in the United States in 1970. And I think it’s no mere coincidence that this happened during a time when humans first voyaged to the moon and looked back at the Earth. The view from afar raised ecological awareness.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo, I find myself considering what it all meant. It was a dangerous and costly undertaking to land men on the moon and return them safely before the decade was out. Yet there were benefits. It was a competition with the Soviets that did not involve warheads. There were technological spin-offs, such as GPS and communications satellites. A generation was inspired to pursue careers in science and engineering. The rocks and regolith brought back revealed an amazing story of the origin of the Earth and moon. Maybe most importantly, humans saw our planet for the first time.
Even though the mission of Apollo was to explore the moon, I am moved by how often the astronauts looked homeward. The crew of Apollo 8 (the first mission to the moon) took the memorable picture of Earthrise on Christmas Eve 1968 as they orbited around from the far side of the moon. Four years later, the crew of Apollo 17 (the last mission to the Moon), took a photo of the whole Earth remembered as “The Blue Marble.” In 1969, Neil Armstrong (the first human to walk on another world), took a moment from a very busy schedule to look up at our planet high overhead above the Sea of Tranquility. He found that he could easily cover it with his thumb. Asked later if this made him feel like a giant, he said it made him feel very small. Time and again, astronauts returned to tell us how very fragile and awesome the Earth appeared from afar. And how it needed to be protected for all mankind.
Sometimes I see a parallel between Project Apollo and the many effigy mounds here in the Driftless. We may never know why they were constructed, but we do know their builders invested considerable labor in creating them. I have heard speculation that maybe they were inspired by charismatic leaders seeking to affirm the identity of a people and their place in the cosmos — they were mound builders living between the Earth below and the sky above. And maybe that’s the legacy of Apollo and one of the things to be remembered about a very challenging 20th century. Maybe we are moonwalkers and Earthgazers. Maybe we journeyed a long way to discover a unique and precious Earth inhabited by humans with common origins and a shared future of caring for one planet.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. For more information about stargazing in southwestern Wisconsin, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies above.