Columnist David Shribman

Uncommon people we can look up to: We need a hero

By David Shribman


Posted 6/18/24

Is America losing its heroes?

Earlier this month, on the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the country came to realize that only a few centenarians remain from the nearly 160,000 involved in the …

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Columnist David Shribman

Uncommon people we can look up to: We need a hero


Is America losing its heroes?

Earlier this month, on the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the country came to realize that only a few centenarians remain from the nearly 160,000 involved in the opening days of the invasion of occupied France. One of them, Robert Persichitti, 102, died en route to the commemoration. He had also served at Guam, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Then, just a few days ago, William Anders, the Apollo 8 astronaut remembered for snapping the “Earthrise” photograph in 1968, died. At age 90, he was flying alone when his plane crashed off the San Juan Islands in Washington state. He never stepped on the moon, but, perhaps more than any of his astronaut colleagues, he expanded our vision of the Earth.

Only a third of those who left their footprints on the moon still walk the Earth. Apollo 11, which took the first humans to the surface of the Earth’s lone satellite, is well remembered for what Neil Armstrong described as “one giant leap for mankind.” But the passing of Anders is a reminder of the revelation that came with that photograph, a change in human perspective that can be described as earth-shattering.

Anders knew that. “We came all this way to explore the moon,” he said, “and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

The glimpse of the astronauts’ home planet — an icy-blue celestial body, pockmarked with bright white clouds, hanging in the heavens, suspended against the black of deep space — astonished the men in their tiny capsule, just as it did 3.5 billion people on Earth.

“Oh, my God,” Anders said, in just the first religious reference made on this voyage, “look at that picture over there!” He went on to say: “There’s the Earth comin’ up. Wow ...”

The word “wow” would have great meaning seven years later, a half-decade since the last person left the moon’s surface.

It came when the astronomer Jerry R. Ehrman, monitoring data the Ohio State University radio telescope fed into a primitive IBM 1100 mainframe computer, noticed an unusual pattern (“6EQUJ5,” rendered vertically) at a frequency of 1420.4556 megahertz — tantalizingly close to the 1420 frequency scientists thought might be the communications channel an alien civilization would use to communicate with those on Earth. On a computer printout, Ehrman scratched the word “Wow” followed by an evocative exclamation point.

The first photograph of the rising of the Earth was made by Frank Borman, the Apollo 8 mission commander. But it was a black-and-white shot, lacking the “wow” drama and, in the astronauts’ view, lacking the significance that would come from an image in color. Anders asked Jim Lovell, the third astronaut aboard, to hand him a roll of color film. Operating on an otherworldly deadline, Lovell finally found one. Anders took the shot seen ‘round the world.

Borman died last year. Lovell now is 96.

“For the first time in all of time men have seen [the Earth] not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depth of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small,” the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote shortly afterward, adding:

“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”

The crew of Apollo 8 was not only the first to see the Earth “as it truly is,” from 238,900 statute miles. They also were the first to see the far side of the moon, permanently turned from the Earth (and sometimes, erroneously, called the dark side of the moon), because the moon’s rotation is the same speed as the rotation of the Earth.

The astronauts were, in the words of Apollo flight director Gene Kranz in his “Failure Is Not an Option,” published in 2000, “like explorers from ancient days, seeing a new land for the first time.”

Later, just before returning home on Christmas Eve in a year of tragedy and tension — the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, combat in Vietnam and strife at home — the astronauts read the opening verses of the Book of Genesis and then added these words: “We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.”

In these days of social, cultural and political conflict, it is easy to think that this is the good night of America and that the country lacks good luck.

But in truth, heroes abound. They are the men and the women of our armed services, deployed around the world, not only in high-profile areas of crisis but elsewhere, too; remember that Nikki Haley’s husband, Michael, a staff officer with the 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, is serving in the Horn of Africa. They are the people of Ukraine, whose struggle matches the greatest aspirations of our own Founders. They are the medical personnel who went to work during the pandemic, risking their lives to save others, just as the firefighters and police officers of New York City did on the most tragic Tuesday in American history.

They are the people in our neighborhoods and communities who serve with selflessness, working in the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank; or who volunteer for the Union Station Homeless Services in Los Angeles; or who search the website of the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Services to find opportunities to give assistance; or who, as the countless people who monitor our polling places, assure the sanctity of our most precious individual public act.

Anders and his crewmates surely would take succor in the fact one of the most poignant meditations on heroism came from a play that also reckoned with the heavens, “The Life of Galileo,” written by Bertolt Brecht when Anders was 5 years old.

In that work, the son of Galileo’s housekeeper tells him, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes!” Galileo answers: “No. Unhappy the land that needs heroes.”

Galileo, later convicted of heresy, may have understood how objects move on an inclined plane and how free-falling bodies accelerate in speed. But, at least in Brecht’s rendering, he was wrong about heroes. We need them now more than ever.