50 Years Later, ‘Earthrise’ Photo Still Resonates

Dec 24, 2018

Fifty years ago today, astronauts orbiting the Moon captured a photograph that some people say changed the world. It was the first color photograph of Earth from space. Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman took the unplanned picture from Apollo 8 just as the blue Earth began to rise over the pale lunar surface. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with local space historian Bill Sheehan about why the “Earthrise” photo mattered in 1968, and still matters today.   

Credit NASA

SHEEHAN: What’s really interesting about the Earthrise image is that it was completely unplanned and serendipitous. Just as they were coming out from behind the Moon, to start their fourth passage across the near side of the Moon, Frank Borman reoriented the spacecraft…. And now for the first time the spacecraft instead of having nose down is pointed nose up. At this point, no one had planned it, no one had calculated it, the astronauts noticed this bluish fingernail arch that was suddenly poking up over the lunar surface. It was Bill Anders actually who was the person who first saw this, because his was the only window through which the Earthrise was coming up…

SEVIGNY: I have the tape, do you want to listen to it?

SHEEHAN: Yeah, let’s listen to that, better in their own words, and then I’ll comment on that.  

SEVIGNY: So this is the audio from Apollo 8 and I think it’s Bill Anders who starts speaking first.

ANDERS: Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow is that pretty!

BORMAN: Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.

ANDERS: [Laughs] You got a color film, Jim? Hand me that roll of color film quick, would you—

LOVELL: Oh man, that’s great. Where is it?

ANDERS: Hurry. Quick.

SHEEHAN: So I think Bill Anders was quick on his feet thinking this through, and he was able to capture this image, which utterly transformed each of these men. They were all impressed by the fact the moon was such a stark contrast to the Earth. You didn’t see continents even, it was just this swirl of blue and white.

SEVIGNY: One thing that strikes me about that moment is there’s so much urgency and worry, I mean, they almost missed it, they almost didn’t get the photo.

SHEEHAN: Yeah, because it wasn’t part of their planning at all… The window was actually quite small, the orientation had to be just perfect to see it, the reality is that it could have easily been missed.

SEVIGNY: So in 1968 when that photo hit the newspapers, what was that like, how did people respond?

SHEEHAN: I think there were two distinct groups. One group were the people who were more environmentalists, seeing the earth as a whole and realizing its fragility and those kind of things. But they probably weren’t the majority. The majority were more the excitement of technology and high tech and flying, sort of this “covered wagons to planets” mentality.

SEVIGNY: So what did you see in the photograph? Do you remember the first time you saw it?

SHEEHAN: I still have the magazine where I first saw that image. Just seeing these astronauts on television, and seeing them floating around and knowing that for the first time they had escaped from orbit around Earth, it was really science fiction become fact…. But after that people sort of lost interest. Landing on the moon, once the competition was over and we’d beaten the Soviets, it was kind of like last year’s World Series results. And that was just when things were getting exciting because now we’ve seen the Earth not only from the Moon, but we’ve seen it from Mars, we’ve seen it from Saturn…. I think that that’s another thing that it illustrates, which is that, as the astronauts themselves found out, they’d been sent to the moon to study the moon, but what they actually discovered was the Earth. The reality is that it is actually is the artistic aspects of the space program which perhaps has the greatest capacity to change us.

SEVIGNY: Bill Sheehan, thank you so much for joining me today.

SHEEHAN: It was a pleasure.