Earthrise at 40: The accidental first snap-shot of our home planet

Apollo 8's enduring legacy (image courtesy NASA)

Earthrise: Apollo 8's enduring legacy (image courtesy NASA)

I can never have enough of this photo — the first ever snapshot of Earth.

This photo of “Earthrise” over the lunar horizon was taken by the Apollo 8 crew on Christmas eve 1968, showing Earth for the first time as it appears from deep space. It forever changed how humans look at – and feel about – their home planet.

And here’s the best part: this image was captured by accident! In all the meticulous planning for the Apollo 8 mission, no one had anticipated or thought about it. All attention was on the Moon itself, which humans would be viewing at such close range for the first time. None of the astronauts on board Apollo 8 – Mission Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders – were ready for the opportunity to witness their own Earthrise.

And if they had stuck to the mission plan, and not acted spontaneously, this image might never have been captured at the time it was.

Frozen in TIME...

Earth's photographers frozen in TIME...

As Apollo historian and film-maker Dr Christopher Riley recalled on the 40th anniversary of this remarkable event a few days ago:

For the first three orbits, preoccupied by the Moon and their latest TV broadcast, the spacecraft was not orientated to give them a chance to see the Earth. But as Apollo 8 nosed its way back from the far side of the Moon for the fourth time, one of the crew spotted the view by chance from a window, his reaction captured by the on board tape recorder.

“Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there!” he exclaimed. “Isn’t that something…”

After a quick joke about the fact that it was not in their flight plan to photograph it, the crew abandoned protocol and scrambled to get a snap of the occasion with their stills camera.

The Hasselblad only had a black and white film magazine in, resulting in the image (below) – the first photograph of Earthrise taken by a human as he watched it happen.

The first Earthrise ever photographed; a colour photograph followed minutes later

The first Earthrise ever photographed; a colour photograph followed minutes later

But this first historic picture is rarely reproduced. Not content with this first monochromatic image, the astronauts rushed to find a colour film, and Bill Anders managed to snap two more frames which became the choice of photo editors for the rest of history.

Read the rest of Christopher Rileyreminiscences on BBC Online.

Apollo 8 was an important prelude to actually landing on the Moon (which took place in July 1969). It achieved many firsts — including the first manned launch from NASA’s new Moonport, first manned mission to leave the earth’s gravitational field and reenter the earth’s atmosphere at tremendous speeds, first pictures taken by humans of the Earth from deep space, and first live TV coverage of the lunar surface. A Christmas Eve reading from the book of Genesis from Apollo 8 was heard by an estimated 2 billion people, the biggest TV audience in history.

Here are the highlights of that broadcast, also known as Apollo 8 Genesis reading:

And this is how BBC’s James Burke talked about it live on air with astronomer Patrick Moore:

Some might consider Apollo 8 as no more than a technological rehearsal to the eventual landing on the Moon, by astronauts of Apollo 11, but the images of Earthrise have had far-reaching implications. The rise of the global environmental movement in the 1970s was partly inspired by this new perspective of our planet. In his Oscar-award winning film An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore acknowledges this as he sets the stage with a series of images of Earth in space, helping us to appreciate the beauty and fragility of our planet in distress.

In an op ed essay to mark the 40th anniversary, Oliver Morton wrote in the New York Times on 24 December 2008: “The photograph of that earthrise by the astronaut Bill Anders forms part of the Apollo program’s enduring legacy — eclipsing, in many memories, any discoveries about the Moon or renewed sense of national pride. It and other pictures looking back at the Earth provided a new perspective on the thing that all humanity shares. As Robert Poole documents in his history, ‘Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth‘, that perspective had deep cultural effects, notably in the emotional resonance it offered the growing environmental movement. Seen from the Moon, the Earth seemed so small, so isolated, so terribly fragile.”

He goes on to argue that the planet is not as fragile or vulnerable as some suggest. But he ends with these words: ““Earthrise” showed us where we are, what we can do and what we share. It showed us who we are, together; the people of a tough, long-lasting world, shot through with the light of a continuous creation.”

The lessons of Earthrise images have been on other people’s minds as the anniversary passed. On his informative blog Dot Earth, New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin recently asked his readers to share what the Earthrise images meant to them. He has received a wide range of comments from people as diverse as former astronauts, scientists, school teachers and children.

Watch Jim Lovell & Apollo 8: Christmas Eve Heard Round the World – WGN (Chicago)’s producer Pam Grimes takes a look back at the 1968 Apollo mission through the eyes of astronaut Jim Lovell:

And here is how NASA Television looked back at their historic mission, 40 years later. In this video Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders recount man’s first voyage around the moon:

One final comment: The world is grateful to NASA, America’s space agency, for adopting from the early days of space exploration a far-sighted, public spirited policy that all its space images are made available free of copyrights to anyone, anywhere on the planet. This is what enables me to use space images on my blog – and keeps tens of thousands of such images in the public domain. Space agencies of other countries, also funded by tax-payer money, have been far less generous when it comes to sharing copyrights. The Heavens may be free, but some images of it are not.

Read my October 2007 blog post: No copyright on this planet – thank Heavens (and NASA) for that!