Depiction of the 1833 Leonid meteor storm, in Bible Readings for the Home Circle (1889).
Published: August 9, 2013
Americans have had an ongoing fascination with the skies above us, so in this episode, we’re taking on space. How have people made sense of meteors, eclipses, and the stars? What has made us want to travel among them, to go to the moon, to Mars, or beyond? And how do things change for those of us here on earth when we do? Peter, Ed, and Brian will be looking up, and looking back.
We’ve got the story of a New England day in 1780 when the sun did not rise, and a midwestern evening a century later when meat fell from the skies. That’s right, meat. Plus, Peter, Ed, and Brian learn about the powerful impact of first photograph of the earth taken from space, and talk with the astronaut who took it. And they hear from a few Americans who signed up for a trip to the moon in the 1960s…and are still waiting to get there.
Peter, Brian, and Ed tell the tale of a Massachusetts day in 1780 when the sun didn’t seem to rise, and how contemporary science struggled to explain it.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
A woman in late 19th Century Kentucky sees meat falling from the skies, prompting scientific inquiry and popular ridicule. Producer Jess Engebretson brings us the story.
Pluto, Planets, and Patriotism
Brian sits down with novelist Michael Byers to discuss the very down-to-earth tale of American ambition that raised Pluto to the heights of planetary status, and inspired his novel Percival’s Planet. Plus Peter, Brian, and Ed offer perspective on American reactions to Pluto’s subsequent demotion to a glorified asteroid.
Fly Me to the Moon…
It’s the mid-1960s and Pan-Am offers its customers the deal of the century – a chance to be on the first flight to the moon. Ed and Brian talk with two lucky listeners who signed up…and are still waiting.
Earthrise: Man’s New Dawn
Historian Robert Poole talks with Brian about the first picture of the earth from space, taken in 1968 by the Apollo 8 astronauts, and how the image of “earthrise” ushered in a profound shift in human perspective.
Earthrise: Behind the Lens
Brian talks with Major General William Anders, the astronaut on the Apollo 8 mission who turned his camera on the “earthrise,” and learns first-hand what it’s like to see the earth as a whole.
We’re not exactly sure how many members of Pan-Am’s “First Moon Flights” club are still out there, patiently waiting for their ticket to arrive – there were 90,000 signed up by 1985, and 93,000 eager astronauts just waiting for the call in 1989. Pan-Am’s subsequent bankruptcy probably didn’t help matters along, but at least we have some classic mementoes to share.
“Starting date of service is not yet known…”: You can also take a look at the nice business-like letter encouraging club members to be patient while the details of their upcoming moon trip were all worked out. “Fares are not fully resolved,” they warned, “and may be out of this world.” Gotta love that corporate humor.
Seeing the Earthrise
The amazing photograph taking in 1968 by our guest, astronaut William Anders, from Apollo 8.
The earth rising above the lunar surface, December 24th, 1968. Photograph by Bill Anders (Wikimedia Commons).
Like the ‘Earthrise’ image? How about a movie of the earth shot from space? Take a look at this video, taken from the Messenger spacecraft in 2005 – you can see the earth rotate and recede from view as the Messenger heads toward Mercury – its final destination.
PLUS: Why a Star-Spangled Banner?
Take a look at Eran Shalev’s article, “A Republic Amidst the Stars,” Journal of the Early Republic 31 No. 1 (2011): 39-73, on the fusion of astronomy and political ideas that placed celestial imagery on the American flag.
From Around the Web
Follow the NASA Rover ‘Curiosity’ on its travels around Mars.
PETER ONUF: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. In 1930, a 24-year-old farm boy discovered a new planet in the Arizona sky. Today we know it as Pluto. But at the time, it needed a name. And Americans were happy to help brainstorm.
MICHAEL BYERS: Pax. Utopia. How about Usofa.
BRIAN BALOGH: Usofa?
MICHAEL BYERS: U-S-of-A pronounced Usofa.
BRIAN BALOGH: Ah, I got it. Yeah.
PETER ONUF: Not bad, huh? A few decades later, Americans channeled that nationalistic energy into the space race. But when astronauts reached the moon and look homeward from 240,000 miles, well the view was a little different.
ROBERT POOLE: There was an idealistic sense that once people understood, if you like, what the earth was really like, this blue and white abstract globe floating in space, that they would realize that the arguments that divide nations and people were really quite petty.
PETER ONUF: A History of The Heavens today on BackStory. Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.
BRIAN BALOGH: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American History guys.
I’m Brian Balogh. And I’m here with Ed Ayers.
ED AYERS: Hi, Brian.
BRIAN BALOGH: And of course Peter Onuf’s with us.
PETER ONUF: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN BALOGH: We’re going to start the show today on a very strange day in May of 1780. In the middle of the morning, the sun just disappeared from the sky. Here’s an account from Boston.
MALE SPEAKER: Those who had good eyesight could scarcely see to read common print. And it was the judgment of many that at about 12 o’clock, the daylight was not greater if so great as that of bright moonlight.
PETER ONUF: Across New England, people watched the sky with fear and wonder. They eat lunch in a murky gloom. Night birds sang through the afternoon. Those who tried to read found they couldn’t make out the print.
BRIAN BALOGH: In Connecticut, the legislative assembly was in the middle of a session. And as the light left the sky, plenty of lawmakers thought it was time to wrap up the discussion of fishing regulations. But Senator Abraham Davenport calmly called for candles.
ED AYERS: The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore, that candles be brought.
PETER ONUF: Finally, in the late afternoon, the darkness began to lift. But the comfort didn’t last long. When the moon rose that night, it was blood red.
BRIAN BALOGH: The next morning, things were back to normal. But all across New England, people couldn’t stop talking about what they called the Great Dark Day. And no one could agree on why it had happened.
PETER ONUF: The most common explanation was religious. Take for example this reaction from a Massachusetts church deacon named Samuel [? Getshall. ?]
MALE SPEAKER: Will any man say that the darkness on the 19th day of May was not the voice of the Lord? For there was no second cause.
ED AYERS: But in the age of enlightenment, a lot of Americans looked for a more earthly explanation. Amateur scientists across New England had jotted down observations as the dark day unfolded. Newspapers quickly realized that there was a market for these stories. And so editors invited readers to weigh in. Here’s a notice from the Connecticut Current.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Our ingenious and philosophical customers are desired to send an account of the particular phenomena attending the darkness, particularly an exact description of the time of its beginning, continuance, and end, the appearance and tincture of clouds, and other visible objects.
PETER ONUF: Readers were happy to oblige. And their hypotheses ran the gamut. Maybe the earth was passing through the tail of a comet, or perhaps clouds had blocked out the sun. No, it was that a blazing star had shut out the sunlight or better yet a mountain. The writers boasted their arguments with observations of what they had witnessed. They built on each other’s ideas and pointed out flaws in each other’s arguments. It was one of the first, if not the first, instances of crowd sourcing by way of the news media.
MALE SPEAKER: Now I take the immediate cause of the obstruction of light to be vast quantities of elastic heterogeneous vapors generated in consequence of the snow which covered the earth the winter past.
MALE SPEAKER: The vast body of smoke from the woods, which had been burning for many days, condensed by the action of winds from opposite points may perhaps be sufficient causes to produce the surprising darkness.
ED AYERS: And in case you’re wondering, more than two centuries later, scientists concluded that last observer was correct, that the darkness had in fact resulted from an enormous forest fire in Ontario.
BRIAN BALOGH: The Great Dark Day is hardly the only astronomical event that Americans have struggled to understand over the course of history. And so today on the show, with the Perseid meteor shower about to put on its annual show, we’re asking how people have made sense of the skies above them.
PETER ONUF: We’ll hear how hundreds of hours of staring at the night sky resulted in the discovery of Pluto and consider how sending men into space changed our view of the earth. And we’ll hear from a few Americans who signed up for a moon trip in the 1960s and are still waiting for their tickets.
ED AYERS: First though, a visit to the 19th century and some Kentucky weather that might beat out even the Great Dark Day for sheer weirdness. Our producer, Jess Engebretson, tells the story.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: It all started in Bath County, Kentucky. One Friday in March of 1876, a Mrs. Allan Crouch was out in her yard making soap. Suddenly little flecks of something began falling around her. She thought it was meat.
FEMALE SPEAKER: The sky was perfectly clear at the time.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: This is from a local newspaper article.
FEMALE SPEAKER: And she said it felt like large snowflakes, the pieces as a general thing not being much larger. One piece fell near her, which was three or four inches square.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: Neighbors flocked to the site of the mysterious shower. The next day, one visitor said that he’d seen bits of meat strewn across the yard and stuck to the Crouch’s fence. Two local gentleman sampled the meat and opined that it was probably mutton or venison.
Local reporters picked up the story. And soon, the New York Times was on it. Their headline read, Flesh Descending in a Shower, an Astounding Phenomenon in Kentucky.
What had happened in Bath County? Americans were eager for answers. So scientists packed samples of the meat in little jars of glycerin and shipped them to labs up and down the East Coast. The big question was what was this stuff?
Some scientists argued that it wasn’t meat at all. They thought it was a kind of plant material. But then a doctor named A. Mead Edwards in Newark decided to do some sleuthing.
He had read in the New York Medical Record that the mystery rain from Kentucky was actually lung tissue. So he set out to gather as many samples as he could. After tracking down seven, and putting each under a microscope, he was convinced that the vegetable hypothesis was wrong.
Here’s what he wrote to Scientific American in July 1876.
MALE SPEAKER: Every specimen I have examined has proven to be of animal origin, showing that the Kentucky shower was a veritable meat shower. As to whence it came, I have no theory.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: But Edwards did mention one theory that had gotten traction back in Kentucky.
MALE SPEAKER: The favorite theory is that the shower proceeded from a flock of buzzards who, as is their custom, seeing one of their companions disgorge himself, immediately followed suit. In fact, such an occurrence has been actually seen to occur so that it would seem that the whole matter is capable of a reasonable and simple explanation.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: A few months after the shower, scientists still hadn’t figured out for sure what had happened in Mrs. Crouch’s front yard. And that opened up space for some less serious interpretations.
MALE SPEAKER: Whence came this remarkable reign? The most obvious conclusion is that the Kentucky shower of meat was really a meteoric shower.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: This is from a tongue in cheek New York Times editorial by the humorist, William Alden.
MALE SPEAKER: According to the present theory of astronomers, an enormous belt of meteoric stones constantly revolves around the sun. And when the earth comes in contact with this belt, she is soundly pelted. Similarly, we may suppose that there revolves about the sun of belt of venison, mutton, and other meat divided into small fragments, which are precipitated upon the earth whenever the latter crosses their path.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: Of course, Alden wasn’t serious about the idea of flying space meat. But behind his sarcasm was a real critique of astronomers.
MALE SPEAKER: Of course, the scientific persons will sneer at this explanation in as much as they have not been the first to propose it and will deny that there are any grounds, whatever, for a belief in cosmical meat. But if they believe in a hypothetical belt of meteoric stones simply because certain stones occasionally fall upon the Earth’s surface, why should they not believe in a possible belt of fresh meat?
JESS ENGEBRETSON: To get where Alden’s coming from, you have to understand how Americans thought about astronomy in 1876. During the 1700s, people believed meteors were just an old wives tale. Rocks falling from the sky? How would they have gotten up there in the first place? It didn’t make any sense.
Then, in 1833, a huge meteor shower forced American scientists to rethink. By the late 1860s, astronomers had reached a new consensus. Meteors were real.
But that consensus was new. And scientists didn’t have the authority then that they have today. So Alden was likely speaking for many skeptical Americans in his snarky editorial, showers of rocks, showers of meat. Sure why not? It all sounded equally ridiculous.
MALE SPEAKER: There’s an obvious need for an improved spectroscope, which will exhibit the appropriate lines for beef, mutton, venison, poultry, and fish as plainly as the present spectroscope shows the lines of hydrogen, magnesium, and other chemical elements. With such instruments, we might obtain some really satisfactory astronomical knowledge.
JESS ENGEBRETSON: Really satisfactory astronomical knowledge. Alden’s satire made it sound like there was no such thing. And in the 19th century in America, he was partially right. The cutting edge astronomy was in Britain and Germany. The US was a backwater.
But over the next few decades, that changed. American telescope building boomed. And by the early 20th century, Europeans were crossing the Atlantic to train in the best observatories.
Within decades, Americans had classified galaxies, launched the first liquid fuel powered rocket, and proved that the universe is expanding.
One thing they never proved, though, was what actually fell from the sky into Mrs. Crouch’s yard that March day in 1876. Even now, nobody knows what happened. But there is one remaining sample of the meat rain bottled up in a museum in Lexington, Kentucky.
So go on, take a look. There’s still time to solve the mystery.
BRIAN BALOGH: Jess Engebretson is one of our producers.
ED AYERS: So guys, when I listen to this piece, one of the things I notice is the not so subtle way the New York Times is mocking these yokels out in Kentucky making their own soap and thinking they’re seeing showers of meat. But it’s interesting that the Times also mocks a scientist who can’t figure out what happened. What do you make of that?
BRIAN BALOGH: Well, I’ll start, Ed because we don’t want to ignore these scientists. But frankly, at least until the 20th century, scientists are viewed as useful for exercising the mind. But their practical value is really pretty questionable except in a few areas like geology where government agencies are really beginning to pursue science in a systematic way.
PETER ONUF: Brian, it seems to me that all that condescension that comes from the spokesman for elite professionalism in the east obscures the fact that there’s a real on the ground commitment to trying to find answers. What impresses me is that there’s been a lot of observation of the behavior of vultures.
Sometimes, there’s this group vomiting of all things. Who would have known that working in one of your eastern laboratories? I don’t think at this point there’s any great divide, Brian, because there’s so much that cannot be explained by anybody, that is meteors. Those– what are rocks falling from the sky? Vegetable matter, animal matter, it all defies explanation.
BRIAN BALOGH: It’s time for a quick break. When we get back, how a quack theory about Martian canals helped make Pluto a planet.
PETER ONUF: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
PETER ONUF: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.
BRIAN BALOGH: I’m Brian Balogh.
ED AYERS: And I’m Ed Ayers. This week on the show, we’re talking about Americans’ relationship with outer space.
BRIAN BALOGH: In 1894, a young mathematician named Percival Lowell spent his considerable family fortune building an observatory in Arizona. Lowell believed there was life on Mars. And the Lowell Observatory spent over a decade looking for evidence of an advanced civilization there. They even mapped what they thought were canals on the planet’s surface.
ED AYERS: Lowell’s sketches and photos were published in newspapers and influenced a lot of people, including H.G. Wells who would go to write the original War of the Worlds. But most scientists thought Lowell was a crackpot. And sure enough by 1906, bigger better telescopes had effectively disproved his life on Mars hypothesis.
PETER ONUF: So to revive his reputation, Lowell started a new quest. Astronomers had noted a strange wobble in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus, and Lowell believed an unknown ninth planet was the cause, Planet X he called it.
MICHAEL BYERS: He latched onto this idea with the same kind of passion that he latched onto the idea of Mars. But for this one, there was a little more evidence.
BRIAN BALOGH: This is a Michael Byers who wrote a novel about the search for Planet X called Percival’s Planet. Byers says that after Lowell died in 1916, his observatory was left with a strange mission.
MICHAEL BYERS: The terms of Lowell’s will required them to continue the search for Planet X. They didn’t really want to do it. They had a lot of other projects in hand. But the will said they had to keep looking for it.
ED AYERS: So they figured well, let’s find a guy who can sit in the corner and look for Planet X while the rest of us get on with the real work.
BRIAN BALOGH: The guy they found was a Kansas farm boy named Clyde Tombaugh. And he’s the protagonist of Michael Byers novel. In 1926, Clyde was 20 years old, stuck on the family farm, and bored to tears.
MICHAEL BYERS: Clyde encountered an article in I think it was Scientific American, or Popular Mechanics, or something like that which captured a bit of the craze that was going on at that time for telescope making, home telescope making if you can imagine this. And this is from scratch. This is you make your own lenses.
He actually managed to make his own telescopes that were good enough to resolve images of Jupiter. He was going to go to college. And he was just kind of making telescopes as a hobby when all of a sudden, a freak hailstorm came up and destroyed the crops that were going to finance his trip to college. So his plans were foiled.
He was desperate. So he took these drawings, these very meticulous and perfect drawings of Jupiter that he had made and sent them off, just on a whim, to a guy called Vesto Slipher at Lowell Observatory saying, do you need a guy like me?
As it happened, this was the exact moment when the guys at Lowell Observatory were looking for a guy just like him.
BRIAN BALOGH: And why did they want Clyde?
MICHAEL BYERS: They wanted Clyde to sit in the dark and in the cold, not only guide the telescope overnight but then to take these photographic plates into a room, and during the day, look to see whether they had captured any flickering image.
BRIAN BALOGH: And that image, they thought, might be Planet X.
MICHAEL BYERS: Exactly. But he was the perfect person to do this job and ultimately to find something. The same qualities that allowed him to make his own telescopes, to a kind of industrial level of perfection, allowed him also to sit behind this telescope and the blink comparator for hours a day, weeks and weeks, and months, and months, and months in a row looking at nothing.
BRIAN BALOGH: Describe the day he found something.
MICHAEL BYERS: He’d been looking for about 10 months by this time. And he finally pulled a set of plate pairs. And he found something. But there was a problem. It was tiny, the most infinitesimal speck that you can possibly picture.
It could not have exerted the kind of gravitational influence over Jupiter, and Saturn, and Neptune, Uranus that Lowell had seen. So they didn’t call it a planet. They called it trans-neptunium object.
BRIAN BALOGH: Ah, a trans-neptunium object.
MICHAEL BYERS: One of those. They didn’t want to call it a planet.
BRIAN BALOGH: How did a trans-neptuniam object turn into Pluto?
MICHAEL BYERS: The observatory, they knew their reputation was on the line, at least in the astronomical community. It would really help them if they had found what they’d been looking for all this time to kind of redeem Percival Lowell’s reputation.
The announcement on the anniversary of Lowell’s birthday went out saying that they had found something. Well, it turned out it was huge news. This is from March 14, 1930, the headline said, A Ninth Planet Greater Than Earth Found, New Discovery Bears Out Calculations of Lowell and is Most Important Since that of Neptune. Savants Think It May Be Bigger Than Jupiter. It was a big deal.
For whatever reason, let’s call it pride at American know how and can do, let’s call it a kind of good news story in the very bad news season that was 1930.
BRIAN BALOGH: We’re in the heart of the Great Depression.
MICHAEL BYERS: This caught fire. Clyde Tombaugh, a kid from Kansas, became world famous.
BRIAN BALOGH: Tell me what world famous means in 1930? I mean where was he appearing?
MICHAEL BYERS: It means you’re in the newsreels. School children from across, at least this country, are writing to you with a suggestion for what to call this new planet.
BRIAN BALOGH: Oh, what are some of the suggestions?
MICHAEL BYERS: So some of the names were Splendor, [? Emfertite ?], Salatia, Pax, Utopia, Tantalis, Atlas, Maximum. I like that one.
But the fun ones are the ones that are from people who have no idea what they’re saying. Like Clyde’s pastor wrote, Dear Sirs, I’m joining the rest of the world in sending congratulations to Mr. Tombaugh for his recent discovery. And he suggests the name Berdette for the planet.
BRIAN BALOGH: Berdette?
MICHAEL BYERS: Berdette.
BRIAN BALOGH: Where does that come from?
MICHAEL BYERS: That’s Clyde’s hometown in Kansas.
BRIAN BALOGH: Ah. Oh, perfect.
MICHAEL BYERS: Here’s a– Dear Sirs, I enjoyed reading about the new [? planate ?] in the Literary Digest. I thought of a new name. So here they are. [? Rhima ?], she’s at the rim. Janus, god of the new year 1930. Eagle in honor of our American Eagle.
BRIAN BALOGH: Ah, Eagle. Any other pro-America names?
MICHAEL BYERS: How about Usofa?
BRIAN BALOGH: Usofa?
MICHAEL BYERS: U-S-of-A pronounced Usofa.
BRIAN BALOGH: Not bad.
MICHAEL BYERS: Not bad, huh. All along, in fact, the staff had decided on two names. First being Minerva, goddess of wisdom. But that was the name of a fairly prominent asteroid, so it was taken. The other one that made sense to them was Pluto.
BRIAN BALOGH: Why Pluto?
MICHAEL BYERS: Pluto is the god of the outer limits, of darkness, and death. Also, its first two letters contained Perceval Lowell’s initials. What could be better?
BRIAN BALOGH: Now what was the reaction of the scientific community at this time?
MICHAEL BYERS: Skeptical. Already by 1931, there was serious discussion among astronomers as to how to really describe this thing because its orbit was strange, it’s angle to the ecliptic was really wonkey, so it’s not on a flat plane like all the other planets.
But there’s also, at that time, there was nothing else like it. It doesn’t really make sense to invent a new category for this thing.
BRIAN BALOGH: So I don’t want to be too cynical here, but did many of the astronomers go along with this because discovering a new planet was good for business?
MICHAEL BYERS: My suspicion is that the astronomers at Lowell Observatory, certainly, were perfectly willing for the public to call this thing a planet. It rescued their reputation. It allowed them to continue their other missions, which they thought were much more scientifically valid.
And in the scientific community, perhaps what happened was they saw how excited people were and didn’t want to get in their way.
BRIAN BALOGH: OK, I have one more question, something that doesn’t make sense to me. Tombaugh was looking in the night sky because of a supposed gravitational pull of this big planet, Planet X. If Pluto was not the cause of this gravitational pull, where did that gravitational pull come from.
MICHAEL BYERS: That’s the mystery. Here’s the funny thing about this whole story. Those numbers that Percival Lowell came up with, those supposed wobbles in the outer planets, they didn’t exist. They were errors in observation.
So he took faulty observations, plugged them into his math, came out with a right answer, and found Pluto.
BRIAN BALOGH: Garbage in, garbage out.
MICHAEL BYERS: Garbage in, Pluto out.
BRIAN BALOGH: Very good. Michael Byers is a novelist and professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan. His novel about the discovery of Pluto is Percival’s Planet. Now there’s a coda to this story.
Clyde Tombaugh died in 1997. Nine years later, NASA launched the New Horizon Spacecraft, the first spacecraft ever to set sail for Pluto. Among the things it’s carrying is a tiny portion of Clyde Tombaugh himself, his ashes. After it passes Pluto next year, those ashes will be the first human remains to leave the solar system.
PETER ONUF: Now you might remember that in 2006 right about the same time that NASA launched that probe, the scientific establishment was deciding once and for all that Pluto was not a planet. And back here on earth, that decision rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
ED AYERS: We have a few letters here that school kids sent into the Museum of Natural History, which it unceremoniously removed Pluto from its solar system model. And I quote, Dear scientists, why can’t Pluto be a planet? If it’s small, that doesn’ t mean that it doesn’t have to be a planet anymore. Some people like Pluto. If it doesn’t exist, then they don’t have a favorite planet. Please write back, but not in cursive because I can’t read cursive.
ED AYERS: But it wasn’t just kids. A lot of American grown ups were plenty mad, too. The state of New Mexico even did what it could to restore Pluto’s status, passing a law that reads, and I quote, As Pluto passes overhead through New Mexico’s excellent night skies, it shall be declared a planet.
So guys, I got something for us to think about for a couple of minutes. Why are Americans so determined to hold on to Pluto? I mean I know it’s on classroom walls around the country, on old maps of solar systems and textbooks, but do you think there’s anything more to it than that?
BRIAN BALOGH: I think there is, Ed. Now what you’re describing is inertia. And you could look up at the skies and say, yeah you know, all those planets are going around. It’s just inertia. Let’s not bother with it.
But I think when you actually delve into what created that inertia, there is quite an interesting story. I mean here you have the first planet discovered by an American. This is a really big deal in the 1930s. And he discovers it at a time when America is really down on its luck. It’s the heart of the Great Depression.
So that’s how it gets in the textbooks and on the maps in the first place. And you have Disney involved. Disney renames the dog, Pluto. And so who’s in those schools, it’s kids.
And who are those kids, they’re us. And so we grow up learning the one planet I remember from school is Pluto. I’m not giving that up. I don’t remember anything else about planets.
You’re not going to take that. You have to pry that out of my cold dead hands.
PETER ONUF: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking today about the history of American ideas about the skies and space beyond.
ED AYERS: Now a lot of us will remember the excitement in the air a year ago this month when NASA successfully landed two rovers on the surface of Mars. And for a lot of us of a certain age, it was a faint echo of the optimism we felt on Christmas Eve, 1968. That was the day a spaceship piloted by humans finally circled the moon.
PETER ONUF: It was also the day that Pan Am airlines announced that it was starting a waiting list for people interested in being passengers on commercial service to the moon. More than 93,000 people eventually signed up. Amy Hempel was one of them.
AMY HEMPEL: I found out about Pan Am creating a list. And I turned to my dad and said, I want to go. How do I do it? And he said, well, I don’t know. Let’s call the travel agent. And so we called the travel agent.
And the travel agent said, you know, I think I got a flyer from Pan Am, and they are starting a moon flights list. So here’s the address that you can write to.
So I wrote a letter. We didn’t telephone at that time, of course, because it would be long distance. I wrote a letter to Pam Am. And they sent me back my membership card with a number on it.
My membership in the First Moon Flight’s Club.
ED AYERS: What did the card look like? Was it made with anything lunar or space like?
AMY HEMPEL: So I do still have my First Moon Flight’s Club membership card as a matter of fact. It’s wallet size.
ED AYERS: Of course, yes.
AMY HEMPEL: And on cardboard. And on one side it has a picture of earth from the moon and two astronauts walking on the moon. And they have– I don’t know what they’re called, but they’re self-contained breathing apparatuses attached to their space suits. And it says, no ye by all these presents that– and then my name is in there, Amy Hempel, Amy Stewart, has become a certified member of Pan Am’s First Moon Flights Club.
And then there’s a space for the number. And the number was printed on with one of those advance the number things. And then, it’s signed by James Montgomery, the vice president of sales.
ED AYERS: Do you have any memory of what the number might be?
AMY HEMPEL: Yeah, I would never forget that. 3,384.
ED AYERS: Wow, that’s early.
AMY HEMPEL: I know. I have an early one. And by now, for all I know, the people ahead of me passed away. I could be first on the list by now.
MALE SPEAKER: The serial number was lost on me. If I had known from the beginning that there were 88,707 passengers in front of me, I think I would have probably thrown in the towel.
BRIAN BALOGH: This is Bill Fox. He’s also a member of the First Moon Flights Club. But in his case, the club came to him.
BILL FOX: I think it was probably second or third grade when we had a classroom visitor come to the school. And they gave some kind of a talk, obviously related to space. And at the end of the presentation, I think someone pulled out a typewriter and typed our names on the membership cards, these little cardboard kind of wallet cards that we all got.
I kept it. Obviously, it had great value and meaning to me. I don’t have very many things from my grade school years. But I kept the card. The whole thing– if you recall the movie, 2001, it has a very much a 2001 kind of feel to it.
On the back, there was a picture of kind of that passenger commercial flight spacecraft that was part of the 2001 movie poster. There was a picture of that and a couple little bullet points about Pan Am.
ED AYERS: Yeah, I want to descend into nostalgia for a moment if we could. I do remember 2001 back then. It seemed so improbably distant and so improbably futuristic.
BRIAN BALOGH: And it still seems distant, Ed.
ED AYERS: Yeah, just in the opposite direction now. Are you disappointed that we’re not further along in terms of space flight? Maybe you’ve grown reconciled with your own personal failure to make it to the moon, but how about just for our society as a whole? Do you have some sense that gosh, we thought we’d be so much farther along the we are now.
BILL FOX: Yeah, I was absolutely convinced that this was my ticket to the moon. And me and all of my classmates would be on board that same flight. I think I expected there might be a flight or two ahead of us with certain dignitaries, and presidents, and whatnot. But I absolutely felt like commercial fairly routine passenger travel to at least the moon was just around the corner.
And I think there was a sort of expectation that anything was possible, there were no real physical boundaries, that you could put thousands of people together as a team. And they could solve really intractable issues. And that it was just a matter of muscling up and putting enough focus on it, and you could do it.
And it all just seemed to be falling into place. And then it all kind of went away.
ED AYERS: That’s Bill Fox in Greenville, South Carolina. We also heard from Amy Hempel in Maui. You can find an image of the First Moon Flights Club membership card on our website, backstoryradio.org. We also have a copy there of the letter that Pan Am enclosed with the card. Starting date of service, the letter says, is not yet known.
Whoever heard of an airline that goes around the world twice a day everyday. Pan Am.
It’s time for another break. When we get back, how three men went to the moon only to discover the earth.
Whoever heard of an airline with a waiting list for the moon.
Pan Am, things are going great.
BRIAN BALOGH: You’re listening to BackStory. And we’ll be back in a minute.
BRIAN BALOGH: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED AYERS: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER ONUF: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, we’re talking about Americans changing views of space.
BRIAN BALOGH: In 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first people to orbit the moon. As they came around the moon for the third time, they caught a glimpse of the earth rising over the lunar surface. One of them snapped a photo.
ED AYERS: In that image, the earth is a swirling ball of blue and white, a jewel against the darkness of space. The photo became known as Earthrise, and it was reproduced across the globe and in magazines like Life and Time.
Robert Poole is a research fellow at the University of Central Lancashire who’s written about the impact of this iconic photo. He says that until the publication of the Earthrise photo, Americans believed they lived in a world of infinite possibility. And nothing represented that more than the prospect of space travel.
ROBERT POOLE: I say this is the tipping point, almost the tipping point, of the 20th century because the first 2/3 of the 20th century were largely about progress or sometimes about fear of progress. But people assumed that technological progress would go on pretty much forever, that we could carry on using up the earth, and growing, and that the earth was unlimited, and there would be no really serious environmental consequences. The earth was so big. The sky was so huge. The oceans were so big.
We couldn’t possibly fill them up, damage them, pollute them, or alter them. Of course, we know massively different now. And part of the reason is that sight of the earth. It is absolutely tiny.
I mean, even to us. We see the photograph, and the photo’s printed to make the earth look fairly large, but the astronauts themselves reported that the earth was absolutely tiny. It was really hard to see it out the window. You could easily see it. It’d look beautiful. And then you’d lose sight of it.
BRIAN BALOGH: When I look at that photograph today, Robert, I agree that the earth looks fragile. It looks small. And I understand it looked even smaller to the astronauts.
But what strikes me is the absolute absence of boundaries compared to, let’s say, those globes that we’re used to looking at, which are crisscrossed with boundaries, continents, divisions, basically. How important was that absence of boundaries to the whole idea of the whole earth?
ROBERT POOLE: Well, we’re so used to seeing images of the whole earth now and to be able to take Google Earth and zoom in on any spot on it that it’s actually quite hard to think us back to a time when you just couldn’t do that. And nobody knew what the earth would actually look like seen from the outside.
Most people were used to seeing globes and maps of the earth that simply consisted mainly of political boundaries and patchwork colors. And so the view of the earth as this blue and white abstract globe floating in space was something completely different from that. And there was an idealistic sense that once people understood, if you like, what the earth was really like as seen from space in its natural wholeness, that they would realize that the arguments that divide nations and peoples were really quite petty.
That doesn’t seem to have happened. But it was an idealistic moment. It really was a novelty to see the earth as a natural object.
BRIAN BALOGH: When did that idealistic moment end and what ended it?
ROBERT POOLE: That’s harder to say. In some ways, it went on for quite a few years because the end of the ’60s, the early ’70s was the period of what we think of the modern environmental movement. There have been movements before to protect nature from man. The Sierra Club and so on.
But America was founded on the idea of wilderness, and naturally it follows from that that it’s hard to protect wilderness from human activity. But the new environmentalism was all about seeing the earth and mankind as part of a single system. And humans had to operate within the physical, environmental, practical boundaries of the earth.
BRIAN BALOGH: Right, this was the period where ecology began to reign within biology. And ecology was all about ecosystems and connectedness.
ROBERT POOLE: Absolutely. Ecology booms in 1969. Again, this probably would have happened anyway. But the image of the whole earth seems to give the whole thing some kind of shape and point. And there was a real sense for the first time that the Earth was limited and that mankind had to work within it.
BRIAN BALOGH: Robert, if you could arrange to take one photograph that would have the kind of impact that Earthrise had back in 1968, what would that photograph be today?
ROBERT POOLE: Well, I’ll tell you first that I would like to take it. But nobody is going to let me. A lot of people don’t realize that it’s over 40 years now, end of 1972, since any human being actually left earth orbit. Nobody has been out to see again that blue marble view.
And I would love to have another photo like that. You wouldn’t have to send people to the moon in a giant rocket. You could take quite a small spacecraft. It would just have to go out on a very elliptical orbit, 11, 12,000 miles.
So if there’s anybody from these private rocket companies listening, let’s do that. Yeah, you could make a fortune from the photograph, probably pay for the rocket. But it would be marvelous to have a human being take another photo to the blue marble and compare the changes that have happened in the earth over 40 years. And that would be a fantastic news story. And it might help also reinforce the environmental message that came out of the very first sight of the whole of all those years ago.
BRIAN BALOGH: Robert Poole is a research fellow at the University of Central Lancashire. He’s the author of Earthrise, How Man First Saw the Earth.
Now we’re actually going to hear from one of those Apollo 8 astronauts. William Anders took the famous Earthrise photograph that inspired so many in the late 1960s. I asked him about his historic lunar flight.
What does it feel like once you got so close to the moon? I mean did it feel odd to not make a pit stop there?
WILLIAM ANDERS: Well, our flight was originally to test out the lunar module. And I had trained with Neil Armstrong on the lunar landing training vehicle, so I thought I had a high chance as a lunar module pilot to actually land and walk on the moon. But when the Soviets were rumored by the CIA to plan a circumlunar flight of their own, and thus steal a lot of the PR value of what Kennedy had in mind, NASA very bravely wrenched the program around, took the lunar module away from our flight, moved us ahead to be the first ones to ride on the giant Saturn V rocket, and send us around the moon.
BRIAN BALOGH: Well, Bill, you say NASA, pretty bravely– it actually sounds like you were pretty brave.
WILLIAM ANDERS: Well, we were doing our jobs. We were fighter pilots, test pilots. And so this was all sort of just our line of work. So I was quite pleased to go, though I was disappointed that it was clear that I wouldn’t be a lunar module pilot for quite some time.
But to see the backside of the moon, front side up close was all very exciting. But really, in retrospect, the most exciting part was to see the earth from a lunar perspective.
BRIAN BALOGH: And were you surprised when the earth just popped up in your window?
WILLIAM ANDERS: Yes, I was. Because we were going backwards looking down at the moon from the direction we came, that’s all we saw was the moon. And it wasn’t until we reoriented the space craft, turned it around, and faced it forward that we were able to see the earth coming up over the lunar horizon.
I called it out. I think everybody saw it about the same time. There was a scramble for cameras. I was sort of the official photographer of the flight, though I’d had essentially no training.
BRIAN BALOGH: Why were you the official photographer?
WILLIAM ANDERS: I don’t know. Just somebody made me the official photographer.
BRIAN BALOGH: And if you can, try to recall that first moment what you were thinking about when you looked back at the Earth.
WILLIAM ANDERS: Well, the first moment I looked back at the Earth was going to the moon and see it shrinking as we moved away. And as a matter of fact, from a lunar distance, the earth is about the size of your fist at arms length.
BRIAN BALOGH: Wow.
WILLIAM ANDERS: Not big. So that impressed me almost immediately that our planet, physically, was really insignificant. But even though it wasn’t physically significant, it was our home and therefore important to us. And we ought to learn to treat it better.
BRIAN BALOGH: Bill, you know NASA records everything. And fortunately, we’re able to listen to the tape from the very moment that you and your two colleagues saw the earth rising. And we can ID you because you’re the guy asking for the colored film. I’m going to play if for you now.
WILLIAM ANDERS: Go ahead.
Oh, here look at that picture over there. There’s the earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty. And I’ll take that [INAUDIBLE] Ha. Is that a color film, Jim? Hand me a roll of color quick, would you?
MALE SPEAKER: Oh, man that’s kind of weird.
WILLIAM ANDERS: Quick. [INAUDIBLE] Just grab me a color.
BRIAN BALOGH: Listening to that tape, I think I detected a little bit of edge creeping into your voice, especially when you were asking for that colored film. Am I right about that?
WILLIAM ANDERS: Well, Borman was very focused on doing our mission, which was to test out these space vehicles. I’d been assigned the job of photographing the lunar surface. The earth was not in the flight plan at all. You might wonder why. I have, but never come up with a good answer, except that we just didn’t think about it or NASA didn’t think about it.
But I knew, basically, where the film was. So once we started taking pictures of the earth, I just wanted to get on with it. I think I blazed a shot off with the camera I had in my hand at the time but then managed to get Lovell or somebody to pass me a magazine of color film and slapped on the long lens and started blazing away.
BRIAN BALOGH: You made a lot of effort to bring and then grab that color film. Why was color film so important to you?
WILLIAM ANDERS: Well, the earth is colorful. Black and white may be good for technical analysis. Certainly in the moon you didn’t need color film. And I was challenged by others why take color film when the moon isn’t colorful?
But luckily we had it. And that’s what I wanted to take a picture of this beautiful and colorful planet we live on. Fortunately for me, the people then in the photo lab picked this one color one that I took that has become the iconic Earthrise picture.
What I find is ironic that I just learned here recently that the Earthrise was printed upside down. In other words, they flipped it. So I’ve never been able to– I’ve always wondered why I couldn’t figure out the continent. And I guess, if you look at the negative through the back, you can figure it out. But I thought that was ironic because this thing’s been replicated a billion times probably on stamps and other things.
BRIAN BALOGH: At the time that you took this series of photographs, did you have any idea about the kind of impact it would have upon your return?
WILLIAM ANDERS: No, frankly I did not. I was just out there doing my job. Here was a new target. And that’s why I told Lovell, don’t worry. This may be the first Earthrise, but they’ll be hopefully eight more in our orbit so we can get a good one later.
I think we probably did take some later. But of course, it was the first Earthrise that had all the historic significance.
BRIAN BALOGH: Yes, in fact, you said, quite famously, that we came all this way to discover the moon. And what we really did discover is Earth.
WILLIAM ANDERS: Well, it didn’t take long to realize that the moon had been pulverized by meteoritic bombardment through the ions, and it was just a big mess. I described it as dirty beach sand where a lot of people had been walking in the sand, and having barbecues there, and getting charcoal spread around. I caught a lot of heck from [INAUDIBLE] on that one.
But yeah here was our home planet looking beautiful, serene, delicate, looking peaceful. There was no country divisions. And it was sort of weird to think that well, on one side of it, people are trying to kill folks on the other side of it. Why don’t we try to get together?
BRIAN BALOGH: Did seeing the earth from the moon change any of your political views?
WILLIAM ANDERS: Well, yes, I must say it made me realize that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe and that religions and things like that, who were based on earth being particularly special, had a certain flaw in them. And I have yet to fully square that, but there’s a heck of a lot more Earths out there than even a supercomputer can keep track of.
BRIAN BALOGH: Yeah. You know expectations were so high in the 1960s for what might come of the space program, in general, the Apollo missions. How do you assess what we’ve accomplished, and where have we fallen short?
WILLIAM ANDERS: Well, I think people have lost track, and NASA has not faced up to the fact that Apollo was a Cold War policy by Kennedy. It’s been coded, given a patina of exploration. But that really wasn’t what the American taxpayers were paying for. They were paying to beat those dirty commies.
And when the flag went into the moon, thanks to Neil and Buzz, that basically satisfied the objective of what Apollo was all about. Now of course, it became a jobs program for NASA after that. And so that, plus everybody’s excitement about the exploration phase of it that there was, propelled NASA to keep going.
They would have had 30 lunar landings if Nixon and others hadn’t pulled them up short. So I think the lesson I’ve learned from that is admit what your real goal is and why. And don’t try to kid yourself that just because you’ve made one objective that has been supported by the public that you are, therefore, destined to and will be funded for making some other destination.
BRIAN BALOGH: Bill, if you could visit one place on earth or beyond that you haven’t been to yet, where would it be?
WILLIAM ANDERS: Well, if I wasn’t paying for it–
BRIAN BALOGH: You’re not paying for it. BackStory has a huge travel budget. You name the place.
WILLIAM ANDERS: Yeah, I don’t think it would be worth it to everybody else. I would’ve enjoyed– I’d have voted for Apollo 35 if I could have landed. But from a responsible, by that time working in Washington, policymaker, I just didn’t think it was worth it. Eventually, humankind will go to Mars.
I think the talk that we hear lately from the enthusiasts is massively premature. We don’t have the equipment. We don’t know how to solve the radiation problem. Zero g for that amount of time is tough.
And I hope that the talk of going there in five years or something like that doesn’t eventually turn people off. But sooner or later, Earthlings will go to Mars. And I hope they do it as Earthlings, not jingoistic Americans trying to beat the Chinese, trying to beat the Russians, to beat the Cubans.
BRIAN BALOGH: Thanks so much for joining us.
WILLIAM ANDERS: Well, thanks and keep up the good work.
Apollo 8 astronaut, William Anders, is a retired major general in the United States Air Force. He is one of just 24 people who have left Earth’s orbit and seen the whole Earth.
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ED AYERS: That’s our show for today. But the conversation continues on our website. Drop by and let us know how the Earthrise photo shifted your worldview. We’re at backstoryradio.org.
PETER ONUF: We’re also on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. We’ll be back on the radio next week. In the meantime, don’t be a stranger.
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BRIAN BALOGH: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Jesse Dukes, Nina Ernest, Jess Engebretson, Emily [? Charna ?], and Tony Field. Jamal Milner is our technical director. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Windham.
PETER ONUF: Special thanks to Diana Anders, Garret Brown, Thomas [? Campanella ?], Eric [? Fuda ?], Beth O’Leary, and [? Aron ?] [INAUDIBLE].
BRIAN BALOGH: And finally, we say goodbye this week to our intern, Mary [? Capol ?]. We’ll miss her careful research and constant good cheer. And we wish her all the best when she returns to her stomping grounds north of the border.
ED AYERS: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph Robert Cornell Memorial Foundations, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel, history made every day.
JESS ENGELBRETSON: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and Professor of History at the University of Richmond.
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ED AYERS: Later on this month, BackStory will mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Junior’s I Have a Dream speech by exploring the American tradition of oratory. And we’re eager for your input. Is there an under appreciated speech out there that shaped your life?
Let us know at backstoryradio.org. Or drop us an email, email@example.com.