Earthrise, Apollo 8’s Photo of Earth from Space, Turns 50: Download the Iconic Photograph from NASA

Just a lit­tle over fifty years ago, we did­n’t know what Earth looked like from space. Or rather, we had a decent idea what it looked like, but no clear col­or images of the sight exist­ed. 2001: A Space Odyssey pre­sent­ed a par­tic­u­lar­ly strik­ing vision of Earth from space in the spring of 1968, but it used visu­al effects and imag­i­na­tion (both to a still-impres­sive degree) to do so. Only on Christ­mas Eve of that year would Earth be gen­uine­ly pho­tographed from that kind of dis­tance, cap­tured with a Has­sel­blad by Bill Anders, lunar mod­ule pilot of NASA’s Apol­lo 8 mis­sion.

“Two days lat­er, the film was processed,” writes The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Chris­t­ian Dav­en­port, “and NASA released pho­to num­ber 68-H-1401 to the pub­lic with a news release that said: “This view of the ris­ing earth greet­ed the Apol­lo 8 astro­nauts as they came from behind the moon after the lunar orbit inser­tion burn.”

The image, called Earth­rise, went “as viral as any­thing could in 1968, a time that saw all sorts of pho­tographs leave their mark on the nation­al con­scious­ness, most of them scars.” Life mag­a­zine ran it with lines from U.S. poet lau­re­ate James Dick­ey: “Behold/ The blue plan­et steeped in its dream/ Of real­i­ty.”

It’s often said of icon­ic pho­tographs that they make their view­ers see their sub­jects in a new way, an effect Earth­rise must exem­pli­fy more clear­ly than any oth­er pic­ture. “The vast lone­li­ness is awe-inspir­ing,” said Apol­lo 8 com­mand mod­ule pilot Jim Lovell at the time, “and it makes you real­ize just what you have back there on Earth.” At the recent cel­e­bra­tion of the mis­sion’s 50th anniver­sary at the Wash­ing­ton Nation­al Cathe­dral, Anders remem­bered, “As I looked down at the Earth, which is about the size of your fist at arm’s length, I’m think­ing this is not a very big place. Why can’t we get along?”

You can down­load Earth­rise from NASA’s web site and learn more about the tak­ing of the pho­to from the video above, made for its 45th anniver­sary. Using all avail­able data on the mis­sion, includ­ing audio record­ings of the astro­nauts them­selves, the video pre­cise­ly re-cre­ates the cir­cum­stances under which Anders shot Earth­rise, for­ev­er pre­serv­ing a view made pos­si­ble by a roll of the space­craft exe­cut­ed by Apol­lo 8 com­man­der Frank Bor­man. To what extent their pho­to­graph­ic achieve­ment has con­vinced us all to get along remains debat­able, but has human­i­ty, since the day after Christ­mas 1968, ever thought about its blue plan­et in quite the same way as before?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Won­der, Thrill & Mean­ing of See­ing Earth from Space. Astro­nauts Reflect on The Big Blue Mar­ble

Coun­tries and Coast­lines: A Dra­mat­ic View of Earth from Out­er Space

What It Feels Like to Fly Over Plan­et Earth

The Beau­ty of Space Pho­tog­ra­phy

The Cap­ti­vat­ing Sto­ry Behind the Mak­ing of Ansel Adams’ Most Famous Pho­to­graph, Moon­rise, Her­nan­dez, New Mex­i­co

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Bill W. says:

    I remem­ber it. Peo­ple stopped in the street to hear the astro­nauts read­ing about God’s cre­ation, and His love for human­i­ty. A very mov­ing moment. Added bonus: It made Mada­lyn Mur­ray O’Hair’s head explode! Satan and his fol­low­er don’t like it when God is glo­ri­fied, as He should be.

  • Tyson Bender says:

    Thanks Bill W.! I just looked up Mada­lyn Mur­ray O’Hair. I have a new role mod­el now!

  • Bill W. says:

    Her pas­tor son would agree! She acci­den­tal­ly led more peo­ple to Christ, than she pushed-away from him. Good for her!

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