Fifty years ago today, President Kennedy, speaking before a joint session of Congress, said, “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Love that “the.”

Kennedy (or his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, who died last year) could have left it out.

Earth, alone, article-less, is what things return to. You throw a ball in the air, and it returns to earth. You jump out of an airplane and open your parachute, and you return to earth. But that earth, with a lowercase “e,” suggests merely what we walk on. It’s the stuff, gravitationally speaking, that grounds us.

You can also return to Earth, with an uppercase “E.” That “Earth” is a bit more poetic than “earth”; it suggests a planet. But absent an article, it’s a planet that feels familiar. It’s our home—our landscape, our sky and earth. Goes without saying.

But “the” Earth? Why a definite article? Clearly not to distinguish the Earth from an Earth—from one of those other Earths out there. No, I suspect the purpose of that word was to distance us, however subtly, from our preconceptions.

Kennedy wasn’t just setting in motion a space equivalent of the Manhattan Project, a military and scientific demonstration of might in the Cold War. He was putting the voyage into a cosmic perspective. From the point of view of someone on the moon, Earth isn’t just something to return to. It’s that thing over there, big and blue and rising over the horizon. It is a feature in the lunar landscape—a landscape that comes with its own sky and a pockmarked surface.

With one word, barely a breath, a syllable you could harmlessly omit following all the rhetoric—the conviction (“I believe”), the patriotism (“this nation”), the call to action (“should commit itself”), the appeal to glory (“achieving the goal”), the urgency (“before this decade is out”), the audacity (“landing a man on the moon”), the hint of fear, or courage, or grace (“returning him safely”)—Kennedy ungrounded us. He put us in our place, and it was a different place from where we’d been at the beginning of the sentence. It was the place we’d be before the decade was out.

“The”: one small word for a man, one giant context for mankind.

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5 thoughts on “The

  1. Richard, I think that astronomers and writers (or at least editors) have often disagreed on this. To an astronomer there are many earths, but only one Earth. We capitalize Earth when we mean we are referring the unique planet called Earth. The eponymous Earth, if you will.
    That is about the extent of use of capitalization of the world in astronomy.

    We capitalize Moon, Sun, the Galaxy, the Universe, and Creation in a similar way, but I must admit we are not always consistent. The astronomical editors have accepted this. Newspaper editors have not.

    For me there is only a subtle difference between “return to Earth” and “return to the Earth.” The latter stresses more the uniqueness of the planet by having the article stress the importance of the word in the sentence. It also matters if “the” is pronounced “thuh” or “thee” or somewhere in between. That too can help raise or lower the importance of the word Earth.

    I feel you are right in the way “the Earth” is used. It does give one pause to think about our planet as unique.

  2. I confess I am among the inconsistent when it comes to capitalization–which is unusual for me, since I’m usually pretty meticulous about that sort of thing. I guess I’ve just relied on myself to sort of “hear” what’s right in a given context–for instance, whether an astronomer is thinking about the universe or thinking about the expansion rate of the Universe. In the case of this post, though, I probably would have capitalized Moon, since it’s being mentioned in relation to the Earth, but I stuck with the Earth/moon style in the original NYTimes coverage of the speech (and obituary of Sorensen). I’m going to have to come up with a logically consistent system. Thanks for commenting.

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  4. Tuesday, July 19, 2011


    Your photograph of the Earth peeking over the lunar horizon is an important part of your essay. The picture helps to emphasize the Earth as our home while implying our willingness to travel in space. “There she be,” a sailor might say at first sight of the Earth from his good ship Moon, with a lump in his throat. As a writer and editor over the years, I have struggled with definite, indefinite and no articles and come to no undisputable conclusions, not even when consulting E.B. White in “Elements of Style.” Can I see my home on the Earth from my perspective on the Moon? Why isn’t my Earth spinning so that my landscape is blurred? It makes me dizzy to think so. The Quaker poet Kenneth Boulding coined the term, “Spaceship Earth,” to remind os of the finite nature of our planet’s atmosphere and the need to keep it. His observation added a dimension to the urgency Kennedy stressed.

    I love your essay because it take me back to that time when there was a President Kennedy who dared to have a vision beyond the voting booth.

    James Baldwin wrote that he had to go to Paris to define himself as an American. President Kennedy took us into space to give us our own sense of who we are as earthlings (lower case).

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