How a photograph answered the question: Why do humans explore?


As a small pale blue Earth, half shrouded in shadow, rose above the lunar horizon on Christmas Eve in 1968, astronaut William Anders, orbiting the moon during the mission Apollo 8, captured what has been described as the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.

Anders, who had photographed the lunar surface, rushed to put a roll of color film in his Hasselblad, refocused, and in the next 1/250th of a second changed the way we viscerally perceived our home.

Earthrise photography hit a nerve, spoke to people.

You are here, said Earthrise. On this delicate little marble, an oasis in the dark; beautiful and alive and separated from the void by the most vaporous of atmospheric shields. You are all here together.

And we listened. Although the photo is not the start of the environmental movement, it was a galvanizing moment when millions of people seemingly realized that they collectively shared responsibility for the health of their fragile orb.

It has spanned the decades. It intrigued, motivated, inspired and comforted us.

Why are we exploring? This single photograph, captured from a point farther from Earth than any human had ever been before, offered perhaps the ultimate illustrative answer, turning the mirror back on us.

Now, as we perch on the edge of NASA’s Artemis program, designed to reach the moon but with an ultimate goal of sending astronauts to Mars, the question of why we’re exploring is again relevant — and sometimes difficult. to answer.

While exploration and conquest are two different things, in the sober light of the 21st century we have turned a critical eye to the consequences of past colonization, and the concept of “exploration” sometimes suffers by association.

In a world of impending climate catastrophe, geopolitical strife, famine, poverty and systemic racism, there seems to be enough to deal with here and now, without taking on the potential burden of down here. George Mallory’s adage on the ascent of Everest: “because it is there” no longer falls on the same sympathetic ears as before.

What then is the purpose of exploration these days?

There are ready answers.

In the most concrete sense, there are the technological advantages: Velcro, zippers, memory foam and the ubiquitous GPS, to name a few. All donations from the Apollo program.

Remote-controlled robotic surgery for kids? Thank the Canadarm for that.

And, right now, the Canadian Space Agency is hosting both a Deep Space Healthcare Challenge – a competition to develop healthcare technologies for long-duration space missions – and a Deep Space Food Challenge, encouraging the development of food production technologies for those missions.

Significantly, such technology could be put to use in remote communities across Canada long before Mars travel becomes a reality.

So there is a hard currency advantage to exploration.

There have also been historical awards.

Expansion, for example. We owe all of our current cultures and societies to the intrepid early explorers of Africa who longed for knowledge of the next plain, the next valley beyond, or the next continent. We owe much of our collective global knowledge to those who discovered and traveled the first trade routes, exchanging not only goods, but also information.

Exploration, says Adam Sirek, is one of the engines of our evolution.

Sirek is a faculty member of the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration at Western University. “When we look at the evolution of the human species, tracing it and comparing the nomadic species – Homo sapiens – that became us, and how we spread, pushed and explored to become the society we are today compared to other prehominids and Neanderthals and others that really didn’t leave their geographic territories…. Those other species died out,” he says.

“We are because we have this innate drive to push our limits, try new things, experiment and explore. And it’s a defining characteristic of our genetics, proven across millennia.

It’s locked deep in our species’ memory, an innate curiosity that drove us out of Africa to settle in the rest of the world, to learn its secrets, he says.

The same momentum pushes us to the bottom of the oceans, to the moon, to Mars, to probe the depths of space with the James Webb telescope.

It feeds our curiosity, stirs wonder and ignites the imagination. It spreads… and it inspires.

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques: “Space exploration will never be the priority.  ... But we have to keep some of our energy and our resources to dream, to explore.'

David Saint-Jacques was only born six months after the first man set foot on the moon. He does not remember anything directly from the Apollo missions.

But, because of them, he grew fascinated with space, and this Earthrise photograph, in particular.

“I don’t think I ever thought or believed that I would ever be an astronaut. It’s just not something I thought possible. But when I was a kid, I was determined to try to be like what I thought astronauts were,” he says.

He went to school. He became an engineer, scientist, doctor. He stayed in shape. He explored the world around him.

Now, in 2024, there is every chance he will see a land rise himself.

Saint-Jacques — who has already spent seven months aboard the International Space Station — is one of the Canadian Space Agency astronauts assigned to the Artemis 2 mission. ‘Artemis, it will launch, orbit the moon and return to Earth, just like the crew of Apollo 8 did in 1968.

Their exploration was his inspiration. But it was more than that, he said.

For him, exploration is how civilizations evolve.

In this Dec. 18, 1968, file photo, Apollo 8 astronauts, left to right, command module pilot James Lovell;  William Anders, lunar module pilot;  and Frank Borman, commander, stand in front of the mission simulator prior to exercise practice for their scheduled six-day lunar orbital mission at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Humans, he notes, have always needed to transcend the purely material and utilitarian.

“Space exploration will never be the priority,” he says. “But we have to keep some of our energy and our resources for dreaming, for exploration.”

“Once we’ve done everything we needed to survive, we need to keep a small resource for arts, science, and exploration. And this is how humanity progresses. This is how civilization evolves, with the little energy we have left for these three things.

And yet, there is more. Exploration is not limited to geography. Or the cosmographic.

“When you explore,” says Wade Davis, “the goal is not a place, but a state of mind.”

In fact, you could say that the whole point of exploring is to change your mindset.

Davis, a former National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, is currently a professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia. His travels have taken him all over the world and brought him into contact with countless cultures.

According to him, exploration fosters links between cultures.

It reinforces what the Earthrise photograph illustrates – that we are all in this together – and what population genetics tells us – that we are all cut from the same genetic fabric.

We are, as Jamaicans say, “among many, one people”.

Every human culture in the world, says Davis, shares the same adaptive imperatives. We all come together and mate. We all have children. We all have to raise these children. We all have to deal with aging. And we will all die eventually.

“How we answer these questions, how we approach these issues is a matter of cultural choice,” he says.

These choices are, to a large extent, what differentiates cultures and societies. But they also tie them together, because they are, fundamentally, different—successful—answers to the same questions.

Australia’s Aboriginal civilizations had a devotional philosophy called the dream, which at its essence emphasized stasis, Davis says.

“The purpose of life was not to change anything, but to do the rituals necessary to keep the world exactly as it was when it was created.”

“Now, if we had followed that devotional trail, we wouldn’t have put a man on the moon. But we wouldn’t be talking about climate change either.

Given that climate change is an existential crisis, he says, it’s hard to say which pathway has had the longest adaptive value.

“The really important point is that while we’re all from the same genetic tissue, we all share the same genius,” Davis says.

“And how we use this human genius is simply a matter of choice and adaptation.”

Human genius, as he calls it, and its enrichment is – and always has been – the consequence of individuals or small groups who brave the unknown and light the way for the rest of us. By moving away from the herd, they ultimately allow the herd to move forward.

Here, then, is the point of exploration: not only to go boldly where no man has gone before, but once there, look back, go back, and take the rest of humanity along.

From the surface of the moon to the depths of the ocean, through connections with cultures we know little about, this has been the true goal of explorers through the ages: to broaden horizons, to turn a mirror on ourselves , see where we are and where we could be.

Carve out a map of human potential.

As William Anders apparently liked to say in the years after his Earthrise photo: “We’ve come all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we found Earth.”




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