How the stunning Earthrise became the world’s most famous photograph
William Anders NASA
IT CAME as no surprise since it was already in the mission plan, but the astonished cries of the astronauts were spontaneous. On 24 December 1968, Apollo 8 completed the first circumnavigation of the moon by humans. As it emerged from the dark side, Earth crept over the lunar horizon. It was the first time anybody had seen earthrise. Astronaut William Anders picked up his camera and took a photograph.
It is generally thought of as the first photograph of Earth taken from the moon, but it isn’t. Moments before, Anders’s commander, Frank Borman, had taken a black-and-white photo, and two years earlier, the Lunar Orbiter 1 probe sent back two blurry images.
But what is now known as Earthrise was in colour, the blue of our planet’s oceans in clear contrast to the blackness of space and the barren, grey surface of the moon. When the film was returned to Earth and developed, it was a sensation.
“It has often been cited as the greatest environmental photograph ever taken,” says Jennifer Levasseur, space history curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. “And it kick-started what we call green politics today. What appeared so fragile from space engendered great empathy back on Earth. Its significance cannot be overstated.”
In early 1969, the photograph was everywhere, from newspaper colour supplements to TV news bulletins to T-shirts. Outgoing US president Lyndon B. Johnson sent all world leaders a copy
as he left office, both as a political stunt, but also, says Levasseur, “to show them that this is all we have, war, disputes and politics notwithstanding”.
Earthrise was chosen as the symbol for the first World Earth Day in April 1970, and its influence steadily grew. From politicians to flat-Earthers, Earthrise “was appropriated – or maybe misappropriated”, says Levasseur.
It may be the most famous photograph ever. Levasseur thinks so, although she makes a case for a few others, including Alberto Korda’s photo of Che Guevara. And there are many other images from Apollo missions, including Buzz Aldrin’s footprint on the moon. Strikingly, the images all came from the same era, and yet, says Levasseur, as a statement of who we are and where we came from, it is Earthrise that still has resonance.
If it were taken today, would it have the same effect? She isn’t sure. “Our expectations of technology are different now. Everybody ‘knows’ what Earth and even other planets look like from space, even if it’s only in studio simulations.”
In the end, though, that loss of awe is down to one man who picked up his camera on Christmas Eve 1968 and took a colour photo of our world from space, a first we are still talking about 50 years later.
William Anders NASA
The moment the Apollo 8 astronauts spotted Earth
William Anders: Oh my God, look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty!
Frank Borman: Hey don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.
Anders: You got a colour film, Jim? Hand me a roll of colour, quick, would you?
Jim Lovell: Oh man, that’s great.
Lovell: Where is it?
Lovell: Down here?
Anders: Just grab me a colour. A colour exterior. Hurry up. Got one?
Lovell: Yeah, I’m looking’ for one. C 368.
Anders: Anything. Quick.
Anders: Well, I think we missed it.
Lovell: Hey, I got it right here [in the hatch window].
Anders: Let me get it out this one, it’s a lot clearer.
Lovell: Bill, I got it framed, it’s very clear right here!
Lovell: Got it?
Lovell: Take several, take several of ‘em! Here, give it to me!
Anders: Wait a minute, just let me get the right setting here now, just calm down.
Anders: Calm down, Lovell!
Lovell: Well, I got it right – aw, that’s a beautiful shot… Two-fifty at f/11.
Lovell: Now vary – vary the exposure a little bit.
Anders: I did, I took two of ‘em here.
Lovell: You sure you got it now?
Anders: Yeah, we’ll get – well, it’ll come up again, I think.
This article appeared in print under the headline “There’s the Earth coming’ up. Wow, is that pretty!”
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