On Dec. 24, 1968 — 45 years ago this Christmas eve — Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to leave Earth’s orbit and circle the moon.
The mission was historic, but even more memorable is the famous “Earthrise” photo that resulted, showing Earth for the first time rising above the lunar landscape.
Until that point, no humans eyes had ever seen our blue marble from space.
In Life’s “100 Photographs That Changed the World,” acclaimed wilderness photographer Galen Rowell described the unprecedented view of Earth as “the most influential environmental photographic ever taken.” The image of our planet, which seems so small and vulnerable in the blackness of space, made people aware of its fragility.
Earthrise is now one of the most reproduced space photos of all time, appearing on U.S. postage stamps, posters, and the cover of Time magazine in 1969. Many have pointed out the irony of the photo since Apollo 8 was sent to study and take pictures of the moon’s surface — not look back at Earth.
“Of all the objectives NASA had set before launch, no one had thought of photographing the earth from lunar orbit,” Robert Zimmerman wrote in his book “
Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8 : the First Manned Flight to Another World.”
The famous photo was taken during the spacecraft’s fourth pass around the moon, at which point the spacecraft had changed its orbit, making it possible to see the Earth climbing above the lunar horizon.
None of the astronauts were prepared for that moment, particularly lunar module pilot Anders who had been put in charge of photography since there was no lunar module (this was seven months before the first moon landing).
In an interview for a BBC Documentary, Anders described the sequences of events like this:
I don’t know who said it, maybe all of us said, ‘Oh my God. Look at that!’ and up came the Earth. We had had no discussion on the ground, no briefing, no instructions on what to do. I jokingly said, ‘well it’s not on the flight plan,’ and the other two guys were yelling at me to give them cameras. I had the only colour camera with a long lens. So I floated a black and white over to Borman. I can’t remember what Lovell got. There were all yelling for cameras, and we started snapping away.
For some time, there was controversy over which astronaut — Borman or Anders — pushed the camera button. Both claimed to be responsible. An investigation of transcripts later revealed that Anders took the iconic colour photograph, while Borman, being the first to recognise “earthrise,” took the first photo. This photo was in black-and-white and was overshadowed by the colour photo for obvious reasons. In “The Elusive Apollo 8 Earthrise Photo,” author Fred Spier contends that command module pilot Lovell also played his part — it was his authority that moved Anders to take the shot:
Experienced astronaut Frank Borman was the first to the importance of the picture, while equally experienced astronaut James Lovell was quick to follow. Space rookie William Anders, however, was in charge of taking the photos. In doing so, Anders had to follow a rather tight and well-defined photo plan, in which there was little or no room for unplanned snapshots, as he complained later during a debriefing session. As a result, Anders first offered some resistance and then quickly did what the other told him to do. Although it now seems beyond doubt that Anders actually snapped the famous picture, it also seems fair to say the picture came as a result of the combine efforts of all three astronauts.
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