Spaceflight Insider

Apollo astronaut shares story of NASA’s Earthrise photo

Apollo 8 December 8 Earthrise from lunar orbit photo credit Bill Anders NASA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: NASA

On Christmas Eve, 1968, none of the astronauts aboard Apollo 8 were prepared for the spellbinding moment when they would first see their home planet rise from behind the desolate lunar horizon. The vision of Earth provided them the first spot of color as they floated in the blackness of space, orbiting the lunar surface.

Apollo 8 was launched from Cape Kennedy, Fla., at 7:50 a.m., on Dec. 21, 1968. Nearly three hours later, translunar injection was performed and astronauts Col. Frank Borman, commander; Capt. James A. Lovell, Jr., command module pilot; and Major William A. Anders, lunar module pilot, were on their way to the Moon, becoming the first mission to provide humans a round trip visit to another celestial body.

Apollo 8 achieved many other firsts, including becoming the first manned mission launched on the Saturn V rocket and from NASA’s new Moonport, taking the first pictures of the Earth from deep space by humans and enabling the first live television coverage from the lunar surface. During the months of training preceding the mission, no one thought to condition the crew to encounter the view of Earth from lunar orbit.

Many have seen and admired the “Earthrise” photo as the grandfather of all the modern space images seen today, but how many actually know the history behind Earthrise? In February, Anders visited Johnson Space Center for a BBC documentary interview in which he talked about the Apollo 8 mission, its historical significance, his personal experiences during launch and lunar orbit and how he managed to shoot the unforgettable Earthrise photo. During his visit, Anders also paid a rare visit to the Apollo photo lab to open the storage vault where the negative of the Earth rise photo is kept.

The Launch and Lunar Orbit Experience

Anders recalled, “sitting on top of the Saturn V, which was a mini nuclear bomb itself.” He said he remembered the announcement of Sputnik, and that it was viewed as a big blow to the United States. The Apollo 8 mission was of high importance, if the U.S. was to claim the title as the leader in space travel.

“When the rockets went off, that was a different matter, because we thought we had simulated every possible crack and cranny of this mission and yet at the very beginning, we all three realized that we had not simulated the physical environment of the launch of the Saturn V,” Anders said. “It was violent. There had been nobody on it beforehand to tell us … It was so noisy we couldn’t talk.”

As they went through the launch sequence, they could not see outside. A thermal shield prevented the crew from seeing beyond one tiny little hole. When the thermal cover was pulled off the space craft by the launch abort rocket, they were able to see out of their windows, facing upward but could only see sky above them.

“I was very busy,” Anders said. “I was the flight engineer, and anyway, Frank Borman told me if he caught me looking out the window, he’d fire me. So even in Earth orbit, I snuck a glance of Australia, nothing but big huge thunderstorms at night that looked like big light bulbs and also did a quick peek as we went over my hometown of San Diego, which unfortunately was covered with fog. We didn’t really get much of a view in Earth orbit.”

Anders said their job was not to look at the Earth, but to simulate a lunar mission. It was not until things had calmed down and they were on their way to the Moon that they actually got to look back and take a picture of the Earth as they had left it.

“That’s when I was thinking ‘that’s a pretty place down there,'” Anders said. “It hadn’t quite sunk in like the Earthrise picture did, because the Earthrise had the Earth contrasted with this ugly lunar surface.”

Anders described the view of Earth before Earthrise “kind of like the classroom globe sitting on a teacher’s desk, but no country divisions. It was about 25,000 miles away where you could still recognize continents.”

“Going into orbit around the Moon is like driving your hot rod to try to beat the train to the railroad crossing,” Anders said. “It’s going through, God knows, how many thousands of miles an hour around the Earth, and we scoot right in front of it and slow down and go into orbit, [a] pretty dynamic maneuver.”

Anders said they were in darkness as they were, “just starting to go around, behind the Moon, still in contact with the Earth, but in the shadow of not only the sun but also Earth shine, Earth shine being six times brighter than Moon shine.”

It was at that time Anders looked out of his window and, “saw all these stars, more stars than you could pick out constellations from,” and suddenly there was the Moon.

“And I must say, the hair kind of went up on the back of my neck,” he said.

The Earthrise Photo

Anders said after the first two-and-a-half to three orbits, they were going backwards, head down, marveling at the lunar surface, and it wasn’t until after they had made a, “collective maneuver to circularize our orbit at 60 nautical miles, that we rolled over, heads up and turned around, going forward, like you would be driving a car around the Moon.”

They crew was in sunlight and Anders was shooting pictures out of the side of the spacecraft, as this was one of his designated jobs.

“I don’t know who said it, maybe all of us said, ‘Oh my God. Look at that!'”Anders said. “And up came the Earth. We had had no discussion on the ground, no briefing, no instructions on what to do. I jokingly said, ‘well it’s not on the flight plan,’ and the other two guys were yelling at me to give them cameras. I had the only color camera with a long lens. So I floated a black and white over to Borman. I can’t remember what Lovell got. There were all yelling for cameras, and we started snapping away.”

“Earthrise” is the name given to a photograph of the Earth taken by Anders during lunar orbit on Dec. 24, 1968. Earthrise became one of the most famous photographs from all of the Apollo missions and one of the most reproduced space photographs of all time. It has been credited for inspiring the beginning of the environmental movement. In Life Magazine’s 100 Photographs that Changed the World edition, wilderness photographer Galen Rowell called Earthrise, “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” Another boost of fame came in 1969 when the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating the Apollo 8 mission.

Mission Summary and Splashdown

The spacecraft was placed in an elliptical lunar orbit at 69 hours 8 minutes after liftoff. After flying two elliptical orbits of 168.5 by 60 nautical miles with an inclination of 12 degrees to the Equator, the spacecraft was placed in a nearly circular orbit of 59.7 by 60.7 nautical miles in which it remained for eight orbits. Images of the lunar surface were transmitted for live television broadcast on Earth.

At 89 hours 19 minutes, transearth injection was performed from behind the Moon. A nearly flawless mission was completed on the morning of December 27 when splashdown occurred in the Pacific Ocean after a total elapsed time of 147 hours.

The primary purpose of this mission was to further progress toward the goal of landing men on the Moon by gaining operational experience and testing the Apollo system. However, a great effort was also made to accomplish worthwhile scientific tasks with photography and visual information by the astronauts.

This article originally appeared on NASA’s website and can be viewed here: Apollo 8


Formed in 1958, NASA is one of the preeminent space agencies currently in operation, is the only organization to land astronauts on the surface of the Moon, to carry out extended missions on the planet Mars and more.

Reader Comments

Marlene Elizabeth Arenas Fierro

Amazing story with details, this is not only great? This is didactic!

⚠ Commenting Rules

Post Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *