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Posted Oct 31,2008

Photo: Earth from space

The desert air at night is cold and clear. I’ve never seen a sky so bright. The stars and planets seem to pulsate. I’m hundreds of miles from a city, deep in the Namib, one of the oldest deserts in the world. The Bushmen, southern Africa’s oldest inhabitants, call this home.

Legend says that one dark night, a young Bushman girl, wanting to see better, threw fire embers in the sky. The embers became the stars and planets. Thrilled with the transformation and wanting to make it even better, she tossed different burning roots into the air and added color to the sky. This, say the Bushmen, is how the Milky Way was created.

I have my own story about the sky, one that precedes my experience in the Namib by more than three decades. I’m ten years old, perhaps even the same age as the mythical Bushman girl, and am sound asleep. My father lifts me from bed and carries me to a couch in front of our flickering black-and-white television. It’s three in the morning on February 20, 1962, and John Glenn is boarding the Mercury spacecraft. Soon an explosion of light and smoke erupts, and the rocket, burning like a hot ember, lifts him into the sky. “Godspeed, John Glenn,” radios fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter. The world waits and watches. Five hours and three orbits later, anxiety turns to elation when Glenn splashes down safely.

It’s a scene I will never forget, but the mission that stirred my imagination more than any other was Apollo 8 in December 1968, with its haunting photographs of Earth, made by the crew as they rounded the moon, the first humans ever to see its far side. There is our planet, beautiful, fragile, a mottled blue-and-white orb, floating in the blackness of space. The mission’s defining moment came on Christmas Eve, when in a live telecast from lunar orbit, the astronauts read the majestic words of Genesis to an enthralled audience on Earth.

This special edition of National Geographic celebrates the 40th anniversary of that mission. We also salute all the heroes who have ventured into space, and those on the ground who make such incredible journeys possible. May the dreams and aspirations of humanity always be as infinite as space itself.


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