The astronaut Michael Collins took this remarkable photo on July 21, 1969 — exactly 45 years ago. I came across the photo last night and its message to me was clear: perspective matters.
If you look at the photo, you realize that there is only one living human being not somewhere in the frame, and that is Michael Collins, the photographer. Never before in human experience had the opportunity for such a photo presented itself. It was a wholly unique view of us.
There are no human forms discernible. Just a late 1960’s era Lunar landing module inside of which were his Apollo 11 travelling companions Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, a patch of lunar surface and the planet earth (with the rest of humanity) far in the distance.
When I was a kid, in the decade or so after Apollo 11, astronauts were revered, near godly. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, John Glenn, Alan Shepard and even Yuri Gagarin were known to me and every one of my classmates. But in all honesty, I don’t recall hearing much about Michael Collins. Now, looking at this photo, I feel cheated. I feel like I was sold the “giant leap for mankind” but not given a chance to make a hero out of the one person on Apollo 11 who really gave us something we could continue learning from for half a century or more. Armstrong and Aldrin got to walk the lunar surface, not Collins. Neil Armstrong became one of the most famous (and most frequently quoted) human beings in modern history. But Collins gave us something equally great: a totally unique view of ourselves, as a planet, and as humanity. In the last 45 years, the importance of seeing all of humanity as one small, fragile thing has proved far more precious to us, in my view, than the technical accomplishment of putting a man on the moon. In the age of bunker-busters and drone strikes, we need to be reminded — often it seems — that technical accomplishment, especially the ability to destroy our enemies without getting our hands dirty, is not what makes us superior. Whatever name you give it, technical advantage of one person or group of people over another is not the same thing as actual superiority. I often wonder why such an intelligence as ours would have such trouble distinguishing brute dominance over each other from our collective potential to succeed as an intelligent life form. Sadly, when a group of people convince themselves that the technical ability to “surgically” engage in combat comes close to justifying the collateral damage, then the lives of the innocents also taken are not only lost, but the value of humanity is lost as well.
Collins’ photo makes clear to me that with a little perspective, we, humanity and everything we have known and created, are tiny. We are universally insignificant. And we are amazingly rare. To appreciate this perspective, we must look at the 45 years since the photo was taken. In 1969, landing on the moon was seen as a technical challenge that had to be overcome in order to advance our species. Our motivation was fueled by a need for the Americans to get it done before the Soviet Union. Today, the Soviet Union is gone and in its place sits a new Russian oligarchy, rich with oil and gas, seemingly running that part of the world in a vacuum of morality, but a public relations fertile crescent. The Soviet breadbasket now just one of several “new” regions of ethnic and national conflict wherein Russian backed Ukrainian separatists are shooting civilian aircraft out of the sky with Russian military hardware while Russian pipelines feed oil and gas to those with cash and all of us close our eyes and line up for Olympic Games where PR masterminds win the only real medals. This is not humanity, this is theater.
The world 45 years after man walked on the moon is a world that is totally incapable of answering for the inhumanity being done to protect wealth and power. Israel, Sudan, Iraq, Syria and Eastern Ukraine are the cost we pay for the privlidge to squander natural resources, and to base our economies on fossil fuels more than the value of other living human beings. Global warming and species extinctions are happening at levels not seen since the collapse of the dinosaurs. The vision of humans walking on the moon failed because humans are still unable to see themselves as just human. We’re too dependent on distinctions of race, religion, nationality, wealth, sexual preference and any other difference you care to mention. We fail to be united by our humanity because we are so easily reminded of what makes us different from one another.
Looking at Collins’ photo today, perhaps we realize that we can’t engineer a replacement for fossil fuels before our thirst for oil destroys the planet one oil well, one ethnic minority, one other species at a time. The promise of the moon didn’t take us to the stars, it brought us back to the devastation we have wrought on our own planet in our failed efforts to stop being so primitive.