Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Blue Marble

“Awesome” has become an overworked word in our culture, especially among young people. “Awesome” is slang for “enthusiastic approval.” Its root word, “awe,” is less used and underappreciated, but its meaning is far more powerful: deep wonder, respect, reverence, perhaps even coupled with holy fear.

Eclipses inspire awe as few other natural phenomena. Total lunar eclipses are easily visible events, occurring several times each decade. In such an event, the Moon, always at its “full” phase, enters the “umbra,” the dark shadow cast by the Earth. Over several hours we observe Earth’s shadow slowly pass across the bright surface of the moon. Finally, the entire Moon is engulfed in nearly total darkness, faintly glowing from a small amount of light bending around the Earth’s atmosphere. After being eclipsed for up to an hour, the Moon slowly emerges from Earth’s dark shadow back into bright sunlight.

On December 21, 2010, a total lunar eclipse was visible over North America. Because of cloud cover over the mid west, my personal experience was limited to observing that the usual moonlight-drenched countryside became eerily dark, even with snow cover to help reflect light. Other total lunar eclipses I have observed were truly awe-inspiring. As Earth’s shadow passes across the moon’s surface, one experiences a unique sense of our location in the Solar System and the cosmos. The object we stand upon, nicknamed The Blue Marble, casts a shadow on a distant body. A palpable feeling of reverence and humility grips the thoughtful, contemplative observer.

Where did The Blue Marble nickname originate? On December 7, 1972, the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft photographed Earth from 28,000 miles in space. The astronauts were on their way to a Moon landing. Apollo 17 was the last manned flight to Earth’s companion satellite. Since that flight, no humans have been at such a distance from Earth where taking such a photograph would be possible. This famous full-sphere photograph of Earth is called The Blue Marble.

Four years earlier, on Christmas Eve, 1968, three famous astronauts, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders, had become the first humans to orbit the Moon. A few hours earlier they were also the first humans to escape Earth’s gravitational grip far enough to enter the gravitational field of another Solar System body. After orbiting the Moon several times, they began to beam back to Earth one of the most famous direct television transmissions of all time. With a gibbous Blue Marble Earth shining over the horizon of the Moon, the astronauts took turns reading from the first ten verses of Genesis. Then Commander Borman said, “We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.” I was riveted to the television set, watching that broadcast direct from the Moon.

If you have never observed a total lunar eclipse over several nighttime hours, you may plan ahead with the knowledge that a cluster of four total lunar eclipses will be visible over North America in 2014 and 2015. A total of eighty-five total lunar eclipses occur during this century. For readers who have already watched the shadow of The Blue Marble slowly creep across the Moon’s surface during a total lunar eclipse, perhaps these accounts will rekindle your sense of awe and reverence toward the Creator.