Fifty years ago this month, Apollo 8 became the first mission to carry men from Earth’s orbit to the moon.
But that’s not all. One of its three crewmen, Bill Anders, now a resident of Anacortes, took the photo, “Earthrise,” from the space capsule window. It became one of the most famous photos ever taken. On December 24, 1968, Anders, now 85, was supposed to be taking pictures of the moon. Along with crew members Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, Anders had the camera out to shoot the moon’s surface. It was a bleak, forbidding landscape of craters, mountains, and gray. The sight of Earth, emerging on the moon’s horizon, left
even the astronauts agape. “Oh my God!” said Anders, according to the ship’s transcript and noted in the new
book, “Rocket Men,” by Robert Kurson. “Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!” The transcript of the crew and Anders’ urgency to switch from black-and-white film to color is almost comical, and underscores just how sublime the sight was. It got astronauts, the most cool-as-cucumber guys on (and off) the planet, to act like kids. No one had ever seen Earth like this. Swirling white clouds, blue sky and water, all in a magnificent marble, contrasted with the stark moon surface and the black of deep space. Beautiful, fragile, a suspended speck in the vast universe—it’s easy to see how it would make three explorers marvel, and think about how that small blue orb possessed everything they knew and loved. Us, too. The year 1968 had been a turbulent period of social and political upheaval in the U.S.: nightly TV news broadcast body counts of American troops in an unpopular war in Vietnam; in one three-month span, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated; riots broke out in the streets and during the Democratic National
Convention in Chicago. Then came Apollo 8. Its December 21–27 mission was remarkable for what it accomplished, but also for what it delivered: Hope, and wonder. The astronauts famously read from the Book of Genesis on Christmas Eve. Earthrise was credited with bringing an awareness of our planet’s vulnerability. It was used as a symbol for the first Earth Day in 1970. Seen from Apollo 8’s vantage point, Anders’ photo did not show countries’ boundaries or people or ethnicities. It showed the home of all of us. Bill’s son, Greg, plans to
devote an entire room to 1968 at the family-run Heritage Flight Museum in Burlington, where Bill and sons Greg and Alan honor and fly vintage wartime aircraft every spring to fall (Click here to read more). The museum, at the Skagit Regional Airport, is planning a major expansion to be completed in the next two years. Greg wants to put the mission, Earthrise, and 1968 all in perspective. For history, yes. But maybe also to show that a troubled and divided nation can mend, that we are all in this—and on this Earth—together. This month, a half-century ago on Apollo 8, Bill Anders went where no man had gone before, and returned with something unexpected. “We came all this way to explore the Moon,” he famously said, “and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” In the final days of 2018, here’s hoping we still hold some of the wonder, and sense of togetherness, that the Apollo mission brought out in us back then.
Merry Christmas to all—to all of you on the good Earth.
Photo Credit: Bill Anders, NASA