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Opinion: The Webb photos we reveled in are also a stark reminder

Although Hale-Bopp, dubbed the Great Comet of 1997, remains visible for the rest of the year, its appearance became more ominous in late March, when authorities discovered 39 bodies in a home in suburban San Diego. All 39 belonged to Heaven’s Gate, a quasi-religious sect who believed that a spaceship traveling in the comet’s tail came to help them ascend to a higher level.
The realization that a powerful celestial event could cut two paths – that it could bring people together in shared awe and also trigger untold tragedy – stayed with me even when the comet faded away. I thought of the comet while examining the remarkable first images from the James Webb Telescope, released by NASA earlier this week. The first deep-field photograph showed not only unprecedented deep-space detail, but also deep history: Some of the galaxies it captured are – or were – 13.1 billion years old- light, meaning the images we saw offered glimpses of the universe in its infancy.

At a time when life on Earth felt increasingly cramped and closed, hemmed in by pandemic lockdowns and border-obsessed nationalisms, getting lost in this vision of the vastness of the universe was liberator. Tiny, fragile and restless Earth, not even a blue dot in the crowded crush of galaxies on display in Webb’s photographs, is surrounded by endless possibilities.

Yet, although the photos have caused a kind of wonder in many observers – myself included – they also have their limits. This is how astrophotography has always worked: as the spark of astral imagination and earthly activism, as well as a reminder of the inescapable challenge we face. For those working to curb the effects of climate change as well as those working to reverse the inhumane politics of the present, the Webb images present a historic opportunity to refocus attention on the possibility of politics and activism here on Earth.

This shared reaction greeted the photograph taken aboard Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. As the spacecraft circled the moon and Earth came into view, astronaut Bill Anders snapped a photo, capturing the crater moon at foreground and the half-lit The earth behind it, hanging plump and shining like a harvest moon in the darkness of space.
This photograph, titled “Earthrise”, became instantly iconic. Humans had never seen the Earth in this way, both grand and delicate. The image was so powerful that it helped a growing environmental movement gain broad political support. Just over a year after “Earthrise” was published, the United States celebrated Earth Day for the first time.
Talking about world peace and common humanity accompanied this new vision of the planet. Poet Archibald MacLeish hailed it in The New York Times with the hopeful observation: “To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence in which it floats, is our to see like riders on earth together, brothers on that luminous beauty in the eternal cold – brothers who know now that they really are brothers.”
There was needed solace in that idea in December 1968. That year the United States had been rocked by violence and death: the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, police brutality before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the unrest resulting from continued civil rights abuses and the persistence of an unpopular war in Vietnam. More than 16,000 Americans had been killed that year in Vietnam, alongside hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. There was a feeling, widely shared, that the country was collapsing.
But where MacLeish saw the images from space as proof that people were “jumpers on Earth together,” others saw the astronauts’ efforts as a distraction from problems at home. Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken word poem, “Whitey on the Moon,” published a year after the 1969 Apollo moon landing, captured that sentiment. The poem highlighted the entrenched poverty in black neighborhoods that coexisted with multi-million dollar space programs: “No hot water, no toilets, no light (but Whitey’s on the moon).”

MacLeish and Scott-Heron saw a deeper truth about Earth in space. And while Webb’s photos look outward, showing us some of the most distant expanses of time and space, they still offer us the same chance to look within, to reap the sense of awe and the possibility of previous encounters with space, not to escape reality. of our current place and time, but to re-cultivate an awareness of the fragility and value of our planet and the life it incubates.


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