On October 13, 2021, Star Trek’s Captain James Tiberius Kirk, in the guise of 90-year-old actor William Shatner, rode aboard a Blue Origin rocket ship 67 miles to the edge of space. He experienced about 3 minutes of weightlessness and was able to observe the Earth from a perspective few have had the privilege to undergo. From his elevated vantage point, he was able to see how really thin the Earth’s atmosphere is and he could catch a glimpse of the dark enormity of the rest of the surrounding universe. He said that he was struck by the vulnerability of the Earth and the relative sliver of the atmosphere.
“Everybody in the world should do this. Everybody in the world needs to see… to see the blue color whip by, and now you’re staring into the blackness, that’s the thing. The covering of blue, this sheath, this blanket, this comforter of blue that we have around, we say, ‘oh, that’s blue sky,’ and then you shoot through it all, and you’re looking into blackness, into black ugliness. In an instant you go, ‘whoa, that’s death.’ That’s what I saw.” Then he added, “I hope that I can maintain what I feel right now. I don’t want to lose it.”
And he shouldn’t lose his appreciation for the treasure that we have here in our home planet of Earth. A few years before, on February 14, 1990, the noted astronomer and author Carl Sagan convinced NASA to turn the camera located on the space probe Voyager back toward the Earth to take a photograph as the spacecraft was leaving our solar system 3.7 billion miles (6 billion km) from the sun. The photo was named the “Pale Blue Dot” because it showed the Earth as an insignificant point of light amidst the black vastness of part of the universe.
Studying that photo and ruminating of its meaning, Carl Sagan was inspired to say :
“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.
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”
“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
He could have added that every breath of air that we inhale to sustain life, every drop of liquid to slake our thirst, every nutrient to nurture our growth and maintenance, these all are supplied by the environment provided to us by that miraculous pale blue point of light in the midst of an uninviting vast universe of nothingness. This planet that is able to nurture and sustain the wonderful characteristic that we call “life” is truly a miracle.
For those of us who inhabit the surface of the Earth, our planet seems to be enormous, but, seeing our sphere from afar, it truly is insignificant compared to the immensity of the rest of the observable universe.
This essay could have been titled “A Miraculous Pale Blue Dot” instead of “The Miraculous Pale Blue Dot.” The former would have implied a multitude of planets like our own. However, despite the speculations of many who would posit that life must exist in a large number of locations throughout the universe, we still know of only one such location, and that is our own. This essay could also have described the Earth as “marvelous” or “wonderful,” which are also apt descriptors, but the Earth that we know so well as our home is nothing short of a miracle.
How easy it is to overlook the wonder of the planet we live on. How easy it is to direct our thoughts to matters at hand and not even be aware of the specialness of our home. How easy it is to be completely unaware of the miracle that is all around us.
There is a song by Bob Thiele, George David Weiss, and Louis Armstrong called “What a Wonderful World” that expresses the emotional appreciation of our world as well as any other exposition, poem, or essay. It goes:
“I see trees of green,
Red roses too.
I see them bloom
For me and for you.
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.
I see skies of blue
And clouds of white,
The bright blessed day,
The dark sacred night.
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.”
Our planet, and the life that exists on, in, and under it, is so far unique. We need to treasure our world as if there is no other, which, to all our knowledge, there is not. We, as a native species, have progressed to the point that we could bring ultimate harm to our home planet. In fact, we are guilty of a great deal of harm as we attempt to subdue the finite resources that can be provided by the Earth. It is time to view the Earth as a place with only a finite capacity to be plundered, and to be cherished for the good of all its inhabitants. Our world is truly a wonderful and miraculous world. We all need to acknowledge that and act as if we believed it.
- C. Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1st ed. New York, NY, USA: Random House, 1994.