When astronaut Rusty Schweickart found himself floating in space with nothing to do while colleagues fixed a broken video camera during a space walk in 1969, the experience changed his life.
Left to contemplate the spinning Earth below, Schweickart experienced a personal epiphany, concluding that humans were always destined to leave the planet since life itself began 3.7 billion years ago.
He believes that the Apollo programme represents a ‘cosmic birth’ for humanity, symbolising the moment when Mother Earth spawned a new generation of space travellers, who from their new vantage point could look back and appreciate the planet as a single living organism in need of protection.
His somewhat ‘off-the-planet’ perspective is in sharp contrast to more pragmatic astronauts who see the Moon mission as a race for technological supremacy over the Soviet Union, and the triumph of capitalism over socialism.
“I have a different view than most of the other astronauts,” he told The Telegraph ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing on July 20th.
“My interest is in the kind of philosophical, long-term overview of what’s been done, rather than reminiscing about the good old days when we flew.
“I’m not particularly interested in Neil Armstrong’s flight. For me the importance of Apollo was in humanity first looking back and realising that the Earth was the home of all life. That idea of human eyes seeing the Earth from the Moon for the first time for me is the real significance of Apollo.
“In a very real sense the Earth has given birth to life beyond the Earth. I have looked at this and referred to this as cosmic birth.
“That moment of cosmic birth will not be celebrated for 50 years or 100 years, but 10,000 years from now there will still be that moment when life on Earth first moved out into the cosmos from Mother Earth.”
Schweickart, now 83, flew on the Apollo 9 mission with David Scott and James McDvitt, when he was aged 33. Their 10-day adventure began on March 3, 1969, four months before Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon.
The mission was the first time the lunar landing module had been fully trialed ahead of the lunar landing and Nasa was keen to test the engines, navigation systems, docking manoeuvres and life-support systems.
But Schweickart’s spacewalk to collect data from the outside of the craft was almost cancelled after he became nauseous. Vomiting on a spacewalk is lethal as it’s impossible to clear the throat so astronauts can choke.
When he eventually did make it outside the video camera jammed, giving him an opportunity to float in the silence, 119 miles above Earth.
“This was an ideal moment,” he said. “Impulsively, I said to myself I am going to shed my astronaut persona, I’m going to be a human being.
“Nobody was talking, the radio was completely off. Dave was busy, Jim wasn’t talking. I was just hanging, floating in my spacesuit like a pea in the pod.
“And I was suddenly looking at this incredibly beautiful planet which contains everything you know and love, and you could cover it all up with your thumbnail.
“Unasked, uninivited, a whole bunch of questions started to come up, like ‘how did I get here?’ and when I say ‘me’ who is that ‘me?’ and ‘what is the meaning of life?’”
Schweickart believes this new view of Earth seeded the environmental and social awakening of the 1960s, as well as the Gaia theory proposed by British scientist James Lovelock which holds that the planet is one single organism.
Many astronauts have spoken of the ‘overview effect’ in which they realise how fragile Earth seems, covered in a paper-thin atmosphere, amid the blackness of space.
“Life is an amazing thing and looking back and seeing that Earthrise over that desolate horizon of the Moon was for me the first time when humanity got an understanding of what it’s all about and what this evolutionary process is,” added Schweickart.
“If people think about the experience of Apollo, not from narrow-minded astronauts who see it as a race with the Russians, or whatever the hell that is, if people think big enough they realise that this is a huge process that we’re part of from the Big Bang and this is a unique moment.
“This is a moment in time when we are moving out and life is evolving beyond the limits of the Earth and Apollo was that turning point.”