The story behind Apollo 8’s famous Earthrise photo [Video]

Restored image of Earthrise. High quality black and white image colorized using hues from original color photographs. Credit: NASA, Apollo 8 Crew, Bill Anders; Processing and License: Jim Weigang, CC BY-SA

On December 24, 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first humans to witness Earth rise from the barren surface of the Moon. Now we can recreate the experience of the astronauts, thanks to the data NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Video Transcript:

[ music ] On December 24, 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first humans to orbit the Moon, and the first to witness the spectacular sight of „Earthrise.” Now, thanks to new data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, the astronauts have seen this historic event. LRO’s excellent global lunar maps, combined with the astronauts’ own photographs, reveal where Apollo 8 was above the moon and its precise orientation in space when the astronauts first saw Earth rise above the moon’s barren horizon.

[ music ] A few minutes after 10:30 a.m. Houston time, Apollo 8 was approaching the far side of the moon for the fourth time. Mission Commander Frank Borman was in the left-hand seat, ready to maneuver the spacecraft into a new orientation according to the flight plan. Navigator Jim Lowell was in the lower equipment bay of the spacecraft, and Phil Anders was in the right seat, observing the moon through his side window and taking pictures with a Hasselblad still camera. , equipped with a 250-mm telephoto lens.

Meanwhile, a second Hasselblad with an 80-mm lens mounted in Bormann’s front-facing window, known as the Rendezvous Window, photographed the Moon on an automatic timer: a new image every twenty seconds. These photos, matched with LRO’s high-resolution topographic maps, show Bormann turning Apollo 8 around when Earth appeared. The Earthrise, which occurred during Apollo 8’s three previous orbits but was not seen by the astronauts, was now visible in Bill Anders’ side window, thanks to the timing of this orbit.

Here’s how it looked, as recreated from LRO data by Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio. You’ll hear the astronauts’ voices captured by Apollo 8’s internal tape recorder, beginning with Frank Borman announcing the start of the roll maneuver, and you’ll see the rising Earth move from window to window as Apollo 8 turns.

Borman: Well, we’re going to roll. Ready… Set…

Anders: Im – At Im – Just before the subsolar point in the south, on its floor, is the Imhock crater. [unintelligible], is a dark hole. But I couldn’t get a quick look at it to see if it could be some kind of volcano.

Anders: Oh my god, look at that picture! Earth is coming up. Wow, looks beautiful!

Borman: Hey don’t take it, it’s not planned.

[shutter click]

Anders: Have you got a color picture, Jim? Give me a color roll, quick, would you?

Lovell: Oh man, that’s great.

Anders: Hurry up.

Lovell: Where is it?

Anders: Hurry up

Lovell: Down here?

Anders: Get me a color. A color exterior. Soon. Is there one?

Lovell: Yeah, I’m looking for one. C 368.

Anders: Nothing. Quick.

Lovell: Here.

Anders: Well, I think we missed it.

Lovell: Hey, I got it right here [in the hatch window].

Anders: I’ll put it out there, it’s pretty clear.

Lovell: Bill, I designed it, and it’s very clear here!

[shutter click]

Lovell: Got it?

Anders: Yes.

Lovell: Take more, take more! Here, give it to me!

Anders: Hold on a minute, I’m getting the setup right here now, calm down.

Lovell: Take –

Anders: Calm down, Lovell!

Lovell: Well, I got it right — wow, that’s a beautiful shot… two-fifty at f/11.

[shutter click]

Anders: Right.

Lovell: Now vary—change the expression a little.

Anders: I did, I took two of them here.

Lovell: Are you sure you got it now?

ANDERS: Yeah, we’ll get – well, it’ll come back, I guess.

[ music ] For astronauts, seeing Earthrise was an unexpected and electrifying experience, and one of the three photographs taken by Bill Anders became an icon of the 20th century.

In 2018, the International Astronomical Union commemorated the event by naming the 25-mile-diameter crater “Anders Earthrise.” A small crater was given the name „Etu Homeward”. Both craters are visible in the iconic Earthrise photo.

I’m Andrew Chaikin, author of „A Man on the Moon.”

[ music ][Satellite passing by: Beeping rhythmically]

Apollo 8 Prime Crew Gondola for Centrifuge Training

The main crew of the Apollo 8 lunar orbiter stand next to the gondola in Building 29 after taking off for centrifugal training at the Manned Space Center’s (MSC) Flight Acceleration Facility (FAF). From left to right, astronauts William A. Anders, lunar module pilot; James A. Lovell Jr., command module pilot; and Frank Borman, commander. Credit: NASA

About Apollo 8

Apollo 8, a significant milestone in space exploration, was the second crewed mission of NASA’s Apollo program and the first to leave Earth orbit. Launched on December 21, 1968, the mission was crewed by astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders. The mission marked a series of firsts: it was the first human spaceflight to reach the Moon, the first to orbit it, and the first flight to return to Earth after orbiting another celestial body.

The primary objectives of Apollo 8 were to test the capability of human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit and to demonstrate translunar injection, lunar orbit, and safe return to Earth. The mission was a significant psychological victory in the space race, capturing the world’s attention and proving America’s ability to reach the moon.

One of Apollo 8’s most iconic moments was the „Earthrise” photograph taken by William Anders, showing the Earth rising above the lunar horizon. The image became a powerful symbol of the work and is considered one of the most important photographs of the 20th century. The group also did a Christmas Eve broadcast where they read from the book of Genesis, which was watched by millions around the world.

Apollo 8 touched down safely in the Pacific Ocean on December 27, 1968, and its success paved the way for Apollo 11, which would accomplish its goal of landing humans on the moon the following year. The achievements and legacy of this mission continue to be celebrated as pivotal moments in human space exploration.

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