Unveiling the True Tale of Earthrise: The Story Behind the Iconic Photo

by Hiroshi Tanaka
Earthrise Story

The meticulously restored Earthrise image, initially captured in black and white, has been colorized to match the original color photographs. Credit goes to NASA, Apollo 8’s crew, specifically Bill Anders; with processing and licensing by Jim Weigang, adhering to CC BY-SA standards.

Apollo 8, under the leadership of Frank Borman, is renowned for its groundbreaking lunar journey and the legendary photograph of Earthrise. This mission represented a fusion of scientific accuracy and deep human sentiment, marked by the memorable reading from Genesis, reflecting NASA’s integration of technological prowess and cultural significance.

Frank Borman’s recent passing, the commander of the 1968 Apollo 8 mission, has reignited interest in this extraordinary initial Moon expedition.

Occurring a mere eight months prior to Apollo 11’s mission, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first tread on the lunar surface, the significance of the Earthrise image – capturing Earth’s view from the Moon – has now arguably surpassed the landmark of the first Moon landing.

The Backstory of Earthrise

For a long time, the narrative surrounding the iconic Earthrise photo suggested that its capture was unplanned, a spontaneous reaction to the unexpected sight of Earth rising behind the Moon. Despite this belief, the astronauts were prepared for this moment.

Another significant event during the mission was the crew’s Christmas broadcast of the Genesis reading. My extensive research in NASA archives has unveiled the depth of planning behind these impactful events. The famous Earthrise photo, though seemingly a hasty, impromptu capture, was actually a moment they had anticipated.

NASA’s Preparations and Internal Disputes

When the crew first entered lunar orbit, they nearly overlooked the Earth. It was only during their fourth orbit, after rotating their capsule 180 degrees, that they noticed it. Borman shared with me that they were initially too engrossed in lunar observations to see it.

Dick Underwood, Apollo program’s director of photography, stressed the importance of understanding the broader context. He detailed how extensive briefings were conducted with lunar crews, including Apollo 8, on camera setup and film selection.

In 1969, the Apollo 8 crew presented their Earthrise photo to Texas Governor John Connally. Credit: NASA

However, within NASA, there was a debate regarding the focus of the astronauts’ photography. Management emphasized lunar geological features and potential landing sites. Underwood, however, strongly advocated for an Earthrise shot, ensuring the astronauts were well-informed about capturing it.

Borman was accompanied by Jim Lovell, the command module pilot, and Bill Anders, the lunar module pilot. Apollo 8 was initially planned to test the lunar module, but delays led to its absence on this mission.

Before launch, Borman expressed his anticipation for Earth views from the Moon, and Lovell looked forward to witnessing Earthrise and Earthset.

The Moment of Capturing Earthrise

The mission plan did include photographing Earth, but it was a lower priority. When Earthrise occurred, the astronauts were momentarily surprised but quickly adapted.

Anders, while photographing lunar craters in black and white, first noticed Earth rising. He immediately captured a clear shot of Earth emerging over the lunar horizon. Amidst a brief debate over who should use the color film camera, Anders managed to take a hurried, imperfect color photo of Earthrise, later celebrated as the “image of the century.” In contrast, the black and white camera captured a superior image, often overlooked due to its lack of color.

The first Earthrise photo by Bill Anders. Credit: NASA

The original black and white image was exceptionally accurate. Recently, experts colorized this “Earthrise” photo, using the color images as references, to depict the awe-inspiring view seen by the astronauts.

This image portrayed Earth as a majestic yet vulnerable haven. Lovell reflected on the profound loneliness and the realization of Earth’s significance, while Borman experienced an intense emotional response, pondering the perspective of a higher power.

The Genesis Reading

In 1968, space exploration was predominantly seen as a scientific endeavor. However, the Apollo 8 mission, hailing from a predominantly Christian nation, did not leave its cultural roots behind.

NASA prided itself on the autonomy granted to its astronauts, contrasting with the strict oversight of Soviet cosmonauts. This autonomy extended to their live broadcast from lunar orbit, with the agency leaving the content of their message to their discretion.

With the world as their audience, Borman was mindful of the significance of their Christmas broadcast. Prior to the mission, he was advised to prepare a meaningful message, given the unprecedented size of his audience.

Unlike Neil Armstrong’s premeditated “one small step” message, Borman’s words were not predetermined by NASA.

The original Earthrise photo. Credit: NASA

As radio contact neared its end, Anders announced their intention to share a message, beginning to read from Genesis about the creation of heaven and

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Earthrise Story

What is the significance of the Earthrise photo from Apollo 8?

The Earthrise photo from Apollo 8 is significant as it captures the first view of Earth from the Moon, symbolizing the beauty and fragility of our planet.

Were the Apollo 8 astronauts prepared to capture the Earthrise photo?

Yes, the astronauts on Apollo 8 were prepared to capture the Earthrise moment, although they were briefly taken by surprise due to their initial focus on lunar observations.

Why did the Apollo program prioritize lunar geological photos over Earthrise?

There were internal debates within NASA about the focus of astronaut photography. While lunar geological photos were a priority, there were individuals within NASA, like Dick Underwood, who advocated for capturing the Earthrise moment.

What is the significance of the Genesis reading during the Apollo 8 mission?

The Genesis reading during the Apollo 8 mission was a poignant moment where the astronauts read from the Book of Genesis, emphasizing the cultural and spiritual aspects of the mission.

Who wrote the message for the Apollo 8 crew’s Christmas broadcast?

The message for the Christmas broadcast was not predetermined by NASA. Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8, and his colleagues crafted the message themselves, with input from a journalist and a publicist friend.

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SpaceEnthusiast87 November 25, 2023 - 5:11 am

Wow, this story ’bout Earthrise from Apollo 8, it’s super cool! Astronauts was ready for it, but kinda surprised, ya know? Like, priorities were debated at NASA, Earth pics or lunar stuff? And Genesis reading, pretty emotional, right?

MoonWalker45 November 25, 2023 - 9:25 pm

That Earthrise pic, epic stuff! Astronauts wrote their own message? Whoa! NASA’s got some history, man.


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