Earthrise on Christmas Eve: The Picture That Changed the World

The first men to orbit the moon knew they were on an epic journey, but they never imagined the impact of a single image

  • Share
  • Read Later

If you had your druthers during Christmas week 1968, you’d have wanted to get as far away from Earth as possible. The entire planet was a mess—southeast Asia was in flames, Czechoslovakia was living under a Soviet crackdown, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been murdered and cities across the country had been torn by rioting.

As it happened, three men out of the 3.5 billion human beings then at large did have the chance to get out of Dodge, and so, on the morning of December 21, the crew of Apollo 8—Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders—climbed atop their Saturn V rocket and set out for humanity’s first manned mission to orbit the moon. For a trip that began with nothing short of an act of chemical violence—7.5 million lbs (3.4 million kg) of thrust exploding out of the bottom of a 36-story rocket, accelerating the crew to an escape velocity of 25,000 mph (40,000 k/h)—the actual moonward coast was a rather lazy thing.

For three days, the astronauts would drift away from the planet, their speed steadily slowing as the Earth tugged inexorably back on them. Finally, 80% of the way to the moon, lunar gravity would take over, speeding them up and pulling them in. Until the critical moment when they’d fire their engine to ease themselves into lunar orbit, they had comparatively little to do, and so, on the morning of Dec. 22, when they were 104,000 mi. (167,000 km) from home, Houston radioed up with the day’s headlines.

“Let me know when it gets to be breakfast time,” said the Capsule Communicator (Capcom) in Mission Control. “I’ve got a newspaper to read up to you.”

“Good idea,” said Borman. “We never did get the news.”

TIME's Jan. 3, 1969 issue, showing Men of the Year Apollo 8 astronauts William A. Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell.

TIME Magazine

TIME’s Jan. 3, 1969 issue, showing Men of the Year Apollo 8 astronauts William A. Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell.

“You are the news,” the Capcom answered. “The flight to the moon is occupying prime space on both newspaper and television. In other news, eleven GIs that have been detained five months in Cambodia were released yesterday and will make it home for Christmas. David Eisenhower and Julie Nixon were married yesterday in New York; he was described as ‘nervous.’ The Browns took Dallas apart yesterday 31 to 20, and we’re sort of curious: Who do you like today, Baltimore or Minnesota?”

“Baltimore,” Lovell answered. (History records that he was right: the Colts beat the Vikings 24 to 14.)

“Mighty nice view from out here,” Borman said peacefully.

That the men in space and on the ground could chatter so idly was a mark of both their surpassing cool—temperamental types washed out long before they ever saw the inside of a spacecraft or a console in Mission Control—and of the fact that the sheer, improbable novelty of what they were doing made it almost impossible to react any other way. If you’ve never seen the moon up close—never watched it make the transition from a disk in a telescope to an arc of horizon far, far too large to fit in your window—you have no idea how gobsmacked by the experience you soon will be and so you approach it with something of a show-me shrug.

But another fact that history recorded—one vastly more important than the score of a football game—was that it was not the sight of the moon growing in the astronaut’s window that struck people most, but the sight of the Earth shrinking. For all of the millions of years humans and pre-humans had existed, the Earth was always the thing underfoot, the thing all around, the thing that, even from orbit, could never be seen whole, never be reduced to the blue, marbleized Christmas ornament that it is—a tiny, fragile, sphere, suspended in the middle of nothing at all, with a billion billion creatures depending on it for life.

And then, during Christmas week 1968, the perspective at last changed. The astronauts orbited the moon on Christmas Eve, pointed their TV camera at the plaster of Paris lunar wasteland crawling slowly by beneath their spacecraft, and read Genesis to a global television audience watching the grainy images and listening to the staticky voices coming to them from nearly a quarter of a million miles away. A few atheist groups grumbled—something about church and state and a government-funded mission and on and on. But the rest of the world—the whole angry, brawling, bloody, warring world—stopped and watched and contemplated and prayed and sometimes wept. Something about swords and ploughshares, it seemed for at least a moment.

And even that—even the sublime lyric poetry of three explorers gift-wrapping the moon on Christmas eve—was not the most indelibly affecting image of the mission. It was a single picture the crew took earlier that morning, during their fourth orbit of the moon, with no TV camera on and nobody from the ground watching at all. It was Earthrise—the iconic Earthrise—the living, blue planet rising over the dead lunar horizon. It’s the picture that was credited with starting the environmental movement, that has been on postage stamps and t-shirts, album covers and coffee mugs, that has been used as a hopeful symbol of global unity at peace rallies and health conferences, on Christmas cards and in works of art.

As a newly released NASA video reveals, even the astronauts were not entirely sure of what they had just photographed—but they had a pretty good idea. “My opinion at the time was that I thought it would be a great picture,” Lovell said today in a conversation from his home in Lake Forest, Ill. “But I didn’t comprehend that, in today’s language, it would go viral—that it would be the capstone and message of the mission.”

Besides, the three men had other things on their minds throughout the mission,  especially when they were actually in lunar orbit: “You have to remember, we had become a satellite of the moon,” Lovell says. “And in the back of our minds was always the question ‘Will our engine restart when we need it to?'” The engine did restart, and as the spacecraft rounded the far side of the moon after the tenth and final orbit and emerged from blackout, Lovell broadcast that good news to the world. “Houston,” he said, “please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”

It was only in the days after Christmas, when the crew had safely splashed down in the Pacific, that the Earthrise film could be carried to a lab, hand-developed, hand printed, hung, dried and then finally, fully revealed for the extraordinary thing it turned out to be: It was nothing more or less than a photo of home—and it was like nothing the human species had ever seen before.

Borman, Lovell and Anders are all well, all thriving, all in their 80s today, celebrating their 45th Christmas since their epic trip. They are, like the rest of us—7 billion of us these days—mere creatures of the Earth again. But 45 Christmases ago they weren’t—and briefly, by exquisite extension, neither were we.

More Photography from Time

33 comments
clairephilips68
clairephilips68

Timely to find this - I have just been reading a great 45th anniversary interview with Frank Borman about Apollo 8. He's looking wonderful for 85! 

Inframan
Inframan

 Nothing to say. Yes it is the greatest tings in the science actually the space research but its not true that its change the world. The earth will changed when our planet's oil magnates will change their "appetite"  and people will use only alternative energy sources like solar energy and minimum centralized!!!!

http://www.power-gain.com/

MarkStuber
MarkStuber

The article was very poetic but it did very little to back up the extraordinary claim of the head line.  How did this photo graph change the world? It went viral for a few weeks? The closest the headlines claim came to being back up was the statement that it is credited with starting the evromental movement. That seems like a stretch to me.

collins7501
collins7501

The title "Earth Rise" is a great title but completely misleading.  There is a reason there is a "Dark side of the Moon", we never see the other side,  The moon is tidally locked to earth, we never see the other side of the moon. The lunar orbiter was coming around the backside of the moon when the photo was taken.  Quote " We went to the Moon, and we discovered Earth". (Neil Degrasse Tyson).  To the people that claim this photo did not change the perspective of the human race either were not alive when this took place or are completely ignorant.


After this photo was released, it was a rude awakening that we're living on a finite planet.  In 1970 the "Comprehensive clean air act" was passed.  Earth Day was first recognized in 1970, the EPA was founded in 1970...  The organization " Doctors Without Borders" was founded.  Unless you have a view of Earth without all of the political boundaries, that title doesn't even make sense, because every globe has countries painted on it. 1972 DDT gets banned. The clean water act 1971-72 was passed, the most comprehensive version was passed in 1973, catalytic converter gets passed in 1973, unleaded gas gets passed in 1973...  The ambitions of scientists and engineers in the 1960's had a huge impact on the planet we live on now.  The photo "Earth Rise" is the most important photo ever taken.

StevenDahl
StevenDahl

Give credit where it's due:  Kubrick was a genius.

PickaUraNosea
PickaUraNosea

If it didn't change things for you, I feel sorry for you.  For the first time, mankind had the example of how really small the blue marble we live on really was.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

As it happened my parents had decided to spend that Christmas in South Florida. So my father and I peeled off from the rest, rented a car in Orlando and drove as close to Canaveral as we could get, We parked in the lot of a Holiday Inn, spent the night in the car and awake the next morning with plenty of time to bear witness to the launch. I was in sixth grade.




Needless to say, by the time the astronauts were reading Genesis on TeeVee I felt quite connected to the whole process.




World changing? Absolutely.




VjLaxmanan
VjLaxmanan

This is just HYPE! Pretty picture. But, sorry, it did NOT change anything and so also said citizen1137 ;).

citizen1137
citizen1137

didn't change a thing - still a mess and getting worse

citizen1137
citizen1137

didnt' change a thing - still a mess and getting worse

Carlsbadistan
Carlsbadistan

Regarding the reading of Genesis, that article states "A few atheist groups grumbled—something about church and state and a government-funded mission and on and on"


Actually, the intolerance to the scripture reading was a bit more than grumbling. Madalyn Murray O'Hare sued NASA and the case went all the way to the supreme court before it was dismissed, but cemented a culture within NASA that from that point became intolerant of the public recitation of any religious text on any NASA mission.

JosephVignolo
JosephVignolo

Apollo 8 was without a doubt the gutsiest mission of the entire Apollo program. It was the first time the Saturn 5 had flow with a human crew. The first time humans had flown out of low earth orbit. The first time in orbit around another celestial body. The first high speed return from deep space. Also, there was no Lunar Module on that mission. If they had experienced the same emergency on Apollo 8 that occurred later on Apollo 13, there would have been no second spacecraft to get them home. The Apollo 8 crew would have been dead. Borman, Lovell and Anders are the true definition of heroes. They risked putting themselves in mortal danger to accomplish something for the benefit of all humankind. Where are such great men and woman today?

SactoMan81
SactoMan81

It can be argued that this photograph is probably the most historic photograph of the 20th Century. It literally changed the way we view our world.

MichaelSuperczynski
MichaelSuperczynski

Not many people know this but the orientation of that iconic photo of Earth from the Moon was actually taken with the Earth orientated off to the left side.  The Earth was not 'rising'.

msadesign
msadesign

The photo is lovely, Time, but do we have to click through 21 images? Where's the 'view all'?

JosephVignolo
JosephVignolo

@clairephilips68Frank Borman made important contributions to the Apollo program with regards to straightening out the technical problems that caused the Apollo 1 fire, which killed 3 of his friends. He was on the accident investigation board and got North American Aviation on track to fix the many design and workmanship problems that had plagued the Command Module. For one thing, he insisted on new rules that prevented North American workers from drinking during lunch breaks and then coming back afterwards and working on the spacecraft. He also was eloquent in his testimony before a congressional panel that was investigating the accident and successfully persuaded congressman not to cancel the program. Frank Borman may not have walked on the moon himself, but he played a large role in getting America to the moon.

ImForrest
ImForrest

@JackHoffman  The earth rise shots you see are taken in the "daylight" so like here on earth, we are unable to see stars during the day. The lunar surface has no atmosphere so you don't see a blue sky but the sun's brightness is blocking out the the stars.

rimb1172
rimb1172

@JackHoffman If you've ever tried to photograph the moon even here from Earth, you'd see that it's extremely bright compared to the background stars. The short exposure needed to capture the foreground moon and earth is not long enough to capture the dim stars. If you wanted to capture the stars, the moon and earth would be totally overexposed and would look white.


Try taking a picture of the moon at night and you'll see. The "pictures" you may have seen with the moon and stars in the background are composite images taken separately with different exposures.

TomMitchell1
TomMitchell1

@Carlsbadistan


I don't think most folks remember that aspect of the Apollo 8 flight but yes, it was indeed much, much more than a grumbling.

LarryJoel
LarryJoel

@williemojorisin 

There's only a limited number of things that can be clicked on within the article....

JonusGrumby
JonusGrumby

@JosephVignolo So true. Let's remember that the decision to send 8 to the moon was because the LM wasn't ready for a test flight (that came next on Apollo 9). NASA decided to fast track Apollo 8 to the moon instead. It turned out to be a stroke of genius as 1968 was a disaster of a year and the successful mission of Apollo 8 helped diminish such a dismal period of time.

ageezus
ageezus

@JosephVignolo I think there are plenty of equally brave and willing people today. Where are the politicians that are brave enough to fund such projects?

MarkStuber
MarkStuber

@SactoMan81 At best you could say, it changed how Americans viewed the world.  I don't think it changed how peasants in Vietnam changed the world.  I doubt it changed how tribal people in northern Pakistan and in Afganistan changed the word   This is redicolous hype. How did it change people's views.  What views changed?  Did libertarians suddenly become Marxist?  What changed

LarryJoel
LarryJoel

@MichaelSuperczynski 

Prior to the picture being taken, the earth was below the lunar horizon. As the craft orbited, the earth became visible, apparently rising above the lunar horizon. There's a good animation above. 

clairephilips68
clairephilips68

@JosephVignolo I completely agree - actually, I would go one step further and say: without him, America would not have got to the moon before the end of the 60s. 


JosephVignolo
JosephVignolo

@JonusGrumbyYou are right about 1968. It was a terrible year, with Apollo 8 becoming the high point, figuratively and literally, at the end.

Sending Apollo 8 to the moon after just one test flight of the Apollo spacecraft was a huge gamble. And it did pay off. But still it was very risky. If the Saturn 5 had blown up or failed to send them to the moon or if the crew had been killed, perhaps dying after being stranded in lunar orbit, it would have set the program back severely. Certainly the first landing wouldn't have happened before the end of the decade and the failure might have even led to the whole program's outright cancellation. A lot was definitely on the line.

JosephVignolo
JosephVignolo

@ageezusYou are right. I probably should have ended it: "Where is the national will to make the sacrifices necessary do such great things today?"

VjLaxmanan
VjLaxmanan

@JosephVignolo@ageezus I would modify it further: Where is the leadership? There are plenty of brave men and women. There is the national will. What is lacking is the leadership, both political (Presidential and Congressional) and other. We have too many petty people in power today,.