earth from space
A photograph of Earth from space. Ron Garan/NASA

Nearly 50 years ago, an event occurred that fundamentally changed the way we see ourselves — an event that in spite of forever changing the course of human history, is one that has for the most part been forgotten.

The story begins on the winter morning of Dec. 21, 1968 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Atop the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status, the Saturn V, sat Apollo 8 with its three-astronaut crew: Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders.

The aim of the mission: to be the first crewed spacecraft to reach and orbit the Moon, and of course, return safely to Earth.

Three days later, on Christmas Eve in 1968 — when Apollo 8 came out from behind the Moon on its fourth orbit — the crew witnessed something never before seen by human eyes. Commander Borman was the first to see the amazing sight and called in excitement to the others, taking a black-and-white photo as he did. In the ensuing scramble, Anders took a more famous color photo that has come to be known as Earthrise.

"Earthrise" taken by Apollo 8 crew member Bill Anders on December 24, 1968. Bill Anders/NASA

The Earthrise photograph is arguably the most influential photograph ever taken.

This image revolutionized how we see the world — how we see ourselves — with its simple message: We are one people traveling on one planet toward one common future. Unfortunately, the significance and meaning of this image has, for the most part, been forgotten.

Experiencing the Orbital Perspective

Forty years after that first Earthrise, I was also able to view our home planet from space.

The digital clock in the center of Discovery’s control panel, right in front of me, counted down to within a minute. As it reached below ten seconds, I prepared for the main engines to light. Once the main engines spun up to full power and the solid rocket boosters fired, I felt as if the entire space shuttle had just been released from a giant slingshot.

On that first day in space, the most spectacular moment was when I looked out the window for the first time. When I was able to unstrap and get out of my seat — after my tasks were finished and I was able to really take a look at our planet — it was just absolutely breathtaking.

The first thing that struck me was how thin the atmosphere appeared. I realized in that moment that this paper-thin layer keeps every living thing on Earth alive.

You can’t help falling in love with the beauty of Earth. It’s a constant dance of light, colors and motion. And what's really amazing — and beautiful — is watching the colors change on the Earth; watching thunderstorms casting long shadows across the horizon; and watching the clouds turn to pink and red, and then grey and finally black.

I watched the Earth come alive as we passed into the dark side of the orbit and watched all the lights of the cities and towns — all the evidence of human activity — all of a sudden come to life, making the Earth appear as a living breathing, organism. I saw the paparazzi-like flashes of lightning storms and dancing curtains of auroras that felt so close I could reach out and touch them. It was really beautiful to see.

Our Fragile Oasis

What I experienced in space was an immense gratitude for the opportunity to see Earth from that vantage point as well as for the gift of the planet we’ve been given. And in some way that I can’t fully explain, being physically detached from Earth made me feel deeply interconnected with everyone on it.

This feeling of interconnectedness became real to me on my second mission to space, during which I spent half of 2011 aboard the International Space Station. It was a mission that started with a launch from Kazakhstan in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Author Ron Garan is pictured working with Earth shown in the background. Mike Fossum/NASA

The International Space Station is not only an amazing technical accomplishment — probably the most complex structure ever built — but also one of the most amazing examples of international cooperation.

Fifteen nations — some that have not always been the best of friends, some who were on opposite sides of the Cold War, and some who were on opposing sides of the space race — found a way to set aside their differences and achieve something amazing in space. I wondered what the world would be like if we could overcome our cultural barriers to collaboration. How many fewer problems we would all face if we could figure out how to have the same level of cooperation in our interactions on Earth’s surface.

I was born in the year that Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, at the height of the Cold War. Fifty years later, almost to the day — and from the very same launch pad from which Gagarin launched — I too launched into space on a craft bearing his name as a fully integrated member of a Russian spacecraft crew with a couple of couple Russian military officers. As we stood at the base of the rocket that would take us to space on a cold April evening at a previously top-secret Soviet military installation, I looked up at the rocket and saw an American flag displayed side-by-side with a Russian flag.

You have to realize that for the first 15 years of my adult life, I trained to fight the Russians, who were America’s most threatening enemy at the time. I served as a Cold War fighter pilot stationed in West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I also fought in combat in another part of the world and saw first-hand the horrors of war. Back then, I was operating with a two-dimensional mentality of us vs. them. Unfortunately, this is still the primary operating system of our planet.

Humanity Is at a Critical Point in History

The Earthrise image captured by the Apollo 8 astronauts shows that we are one people traveling through the universe together on one planet toward one shared destiny. From this perspective, you can’t see nation-states. All you see is the fragile oasis that is our home planet Earth.

But the way that we’re currently operating, our business decisions and political motives are based on a two-dimensional map. We live as though everything, including the very life support systems of our planet, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the global economy — but they’re not.

Instead, we must create and build a future that is based on the image of Earthrise.

The image itself embodies three key pillars: interdependence, long-term thinking and profound collaboration. All are wrapped in a blanket of empathy and compassion. We cannot continue as a species with a two-dimensional map as our model. Humanity is at a critical point in history.

The Time for Change Is Now

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Earthrise. We are bringing together a group of astronauts from all around the world who have seen the Earth from the Orbital Perspective to form the core of an international coalition called Constellation to reimagine the next 50 years.

Constellation is framing the story as a 100-year journey through space, one that started on Dec. 24, 1968, when we first saw the whole planet hanging in the blackness of space. It’s also a journey to 2068, the 100-year anniversary of Earthrise. We are asking people to co-imagine what the world should look like, what principles we as a society want to be governed by in 50 years. What’s the basic operating system of our planet in 2068? And what’s the roadmap to get to this positive visionary future?

Next September, we are going to bring the message of a possible Earthrise future to world leaders gathered at the U.N. General Assembly. We are also taking this message to people and organizations around the world. We are looking to make massive course corrections to the very trajectory of our society.

I want to offer readers a challenge: I ask you to look for solutions that embody the three key values of Earthrise: interdependence, long-term thinking and profound collaboration. Interdependence is the understanding that what happens on one side of our planet affects everywhere else. Long-term thinking moves away from a time horizon that considers only the next shareholder report or election cycle and starts to think multi-generationally. And one of the key requirements enabling profound collaboration is openness and transparency, as well as the willingness to share data.

With these principles in place, we can propel real solutions that will help create a better world in 2068. We have the capacity for so much when we work together on a visionary future that we can all believe in.

Ron Garan is a former NASA astronaut, President of the Constellation Foundation and author of the book, “The Orbital Perspective — Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles.” Learn more about Constellation at