On Christmas eve 1968, 50 years ago today, humans orbited the Moon for the first time in history. As Apollo 8 glided above the far side of the moon its crew, through the window of the command module, spotted something never seen before by human eyes: a blue and white orb, partially shrouded by the black expanse of space, hanging above the barren-grey lunar surface.
“Oh my God, look at that picture over there! It’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!” exclaimed astronaut Bill Anders, as he rushed to grab a camera.
The image he took became known as Earthrise and it is widely regarded as one of the most influential images in history.
“It gained this iconic status,” Anders told the Guardian. “People realised that we lived on this fragile planet and that we needed to take care of it.”
In the midst of the space race, Apollo 8 was a mission of firsts. Anders, along with fellow NASA astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, became the first humans to travel to the Moon and back, as well as the first humans to see the Moon’s far side.
On this day 50 years ago, Apollo 8 was en route to the Moon on the first human flight to lunar orbit. Three @NASA_Astronauts became the first people to see the Moon's far side and took this famous Earthrise photo. Learn more about #Apollo50 anniversary: https://t.co/othdLsc9K2 pic.twitter.com/RYotJQe0rW
— NASA (@NASA) December 22, 2018
Those incredible feats set the stage for mankind’s first steps on the moon just seven months later during the Apollo 11 mission. Earthrise, splashed across the front cover of Time, printed on stamps and posters, has become one of the most reproduced space pictures of all time.
What Earthrise means for humanity
As Apollo 8 orbited around the Moon – ten times in total – the crew broadcast a live reading from the book of Genesis over black and white images of the Earth, to a then-record TV audience.
But Earthrise caused many, including Anders, to question mankind’s place in the universe. Religion, war and greed seem inconsequential when all of humanity can be covered by a thumb pressed against the command module window.
But aside from its philosophical implications, Earthrise is an image of awe and beauty.
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Ken Bowersox, former NASA astronaut and veteran of five Space Shuttle launches, has great affection for Earthrise.
“It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful image of our planet than the photo of Earth rising above the moon from Apollo 8,” he told Verdict.
“The Earth looks so peaceful from that distance.”
But 50 years later, among the thousands of other pictures of Earth and in the era of HD videos live from space, does Earthrise carry the same significance?
Tony Cole, a member of NASA’s Advisory Council, believes it does.
“It’s the first human perspective of Earth from another celestial body and is captured in picture and audio,” he told Verdict.
“It truly captures in a single image the validation of an idea that man is not bound to earth alone and can achieve almost any goal we aspire to achieve.
“We may be born on earth; however, we are not bound to it. In time we will travel the galaxy and beyond.”
In 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first people to leave our home planet & travel to our lunar neighbor. The most important thing they discovered was Earth. Transport back in time with this montage of footage to celebrate our #Apollo50 anniversary: https://t.co/tcttnOtuy7 pic.twitter.com/scKUvRAXmq
— NASA (@NASA) December 21, 2018
“In a short period of time, we will be able to livestream images from Moon landings”
50 years ago, Anders took the picture of Earthrise with a Hasselblad camera using 70mm colour film. The photograph took days to return to Earth to be developed before it could be shared with the rest of the world.
Now, as technology has advanced, NASA receives photographs like Earthrise in the blink of an eye.
“We’ve seen a transition from film photography to digital images that can be shared within minutes of being taken,” said Bowersox.
“As imaging technology has changed, astronauts from low Earth orbit have captured more and more detailed views of our planet, as well as more and more beautiful images – especially images taken at night.
“These images allow all of us to join the astronauts of ISS on their adventure in space around our home planet.”
And the technology will continue to improve, resulting in more and more spectacular images, says Cole.
“We typically carry a better camera in our pocket every day via our mobile devices than the devices brought into outer space in the 60s and 70s,” he said.
“In a short period of time, we will be able to livestream images from Moon landings and the exploration of Mars from each astronaut in high definition and from multiple perspectives.
“Think about astronauts using FaceTime to show families around their quarters in the Gateway orbiting the moon and looking out a window streaming an approach to Mars.
“Photography has dramatically improved over the decades since that iconic photograph was taken and so has our means to share that data in almost real time. No more waiting to bring it back and have it developed.”
What will be the ‘next Earthrise’?
Today, fleets of satellites take scores of pictures of Earth on a daily basis. While their definition is vastly superior to that of Earthrise, their frequency means they do not carry the same cultural impact.
So what will be the next image that causes humanity to pause and reflect?
“I think that will be the image of the Earth as we accelerate past the Moon towards Mars,” Cole said.
“That image popularity will likely be quickly eclipsed with the first image taken by a human on Mars.”
So far there have been 26 successful unmanned missions to Mars, as well as probes scattered throughout the solar system, which have sent back stunning images. But Cole believes that it “changes the whole game” when seen by human eyes and with a human perspective.
“The way NASA is accelerating space exploration with their partners, I think we’ll have a lot more iconic photos to see and a lot more humans taking those photos instead of just probes,” he explained.
Bowersox agrees that Mars will be the next destination for the ‘next Earthrise’.
“The images I look forward to most, will be captured someday by astronauts who are probably now less than 20 years old,” he said.
“The image will include the bright red surface of Mars with the Moon and Earth rising above the horizon as the astronauts’ spacecraft transitions from flight in deep space to orbit around another planet.”