Earthrise Photo: A Journey Through Earth’s Iconic Space Portrait

Apollo 8 Earthrise Photo

On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 embarked on a historic mission, and three astronauts—Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders—seized a unique moment that would transform humanity’s view of its place in the universe. This mission led to the awe-inspiring Earthrise photo, a picture that captured the stunning view of Earth rising over the lunar horizon. More than just an image, Earthrise reshaped social, cultural, and political narratives on a global scale.

In this article, we’ll journey through the historical context, technical details, and cultural significance of the Earthrise photo, painting a picture of why it remains an iconic symbol of human achievement and environmental consciousness.

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The Apollo 8 Mission: A Step Beyond

A Historic Milestone

The Apollo 8 mission marked a key moment in human space exploration. Launched on December 21, 1968, aboard the powerful Saturn V rocket, the mission's primary objective was to orbit the Moon and conduct comprehensive reconnaissance. This mission wasn't just about technical prowess; it was a bold demonstration of human curiosity and the desire to explore new frontiers.

Apollo 8 marked a series of firsts. It was the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth’s orbit, reach the Moon, orbit it, and safely return. However, amid this historic mission, an unexpected moment stole the spotlight—the Earthrise photo.

The Crew

The Apollo 8 Spacecraft and Saturn V Rocket

With only one previous success, the Saturn V rocket was now tasked with carrying a crew into space. This was a massive risk. NASA decided to proceed, and on December 21, 1968, the Saturn V - the most powerful rocket ever built - roared to life, propelling Apollo 8 off the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. 

This rocket, standing over 363 feet tall with 7.5 million pounds of thrust, sent Borman, Lovell, and Anders on a groundbreaking mission that aimed to orbit the Moon.

Throughout their journey to the Moon, the Apollo 8 spacecraft employed a technique known as the Barbecue Roll Maneuver. This involved slowly rotating the spacecraft along its longitudinal axis to evenly distribute the Sun's heat over its surface. This rotation, at one revolution per hour, helped maintain thermal balance, preventing one side of the spacecraft from overheating and the other from freezing.

This maneuver was crucial for the functioning of the onboard systems and the safety of the astronauts. It marked the astronauts’ departure from the comfortable familiarity of Earth’s orbit into the mysterious environment of cislunar space.

December 24, 1968: Entering Lunar Orbit

On December 24, 1968, the spacecraft entered lunar orbit by firing its SPS engine for about four minutes while over the far side of the Moon. Jim Lovell was the first human to see the far side of the Moon, soon joined by Anders and Borman.

Approximately an hour and forty-eight minutes after re-emerging from the Moon's shadow and reconnecting with Earth, Apollo 8 again slipped behind the Moon. During their third pass, a brief eleven-second engine burn placed the craft in a nearly circular 111 km orbit.

Earthrise: The Birth of an Icon

As Apollo 8 completed its fourth orbit around the Moon on Christmas Eve, the astronauts suddenly witnessed an awe-inspiring sight—Earth rising above the barren lunar horizon.

One of my assignments was to photograph the lunar surface to facilitate the evaluation of potential landing sites. I brought a 250 mm lens to bring that alien terrain into better view. On our fourth orbit, the spacecraft was oriented in a different direction. A startling image captivated the three of us. Earth, 238,900 miles away, ascended above the barren lunar surface. Compelled by that vision, we scrambled for cameras. I deviated from the rigid NASA flight plan. Every photographic exposure had been determined in advance but I had to capture our view with the long lens on color film. One of those shots became known as 'Earthrise.'

William Bill Anders

Step by Step: Capturing Earthrise

The Earthrise photo was taken during a critical phase of the Apollo 8 mission. As the spacecraft orbited the Moon, Borman maneuvered the command module to assist Lovell in taking navigational readings, when Anders suddenly noticed the Earth emerging above the lunar surface.

The Sequence

  • Lunar Orbit Insertion : Perfectly executed by the Apollo 8 team.

  • Maneuvering the Spacecraft : Borman’s adjustment allowed Anders a clear view.

  • Instant Recognition : Anders’ exclamation led to a rapid capture of the Earthrise sequence.

It all began with this…

Anders: "Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There's the Earth coming up. Wow, that's pretty."

Borman (jokingly): "Hey, don't take that, it's not scheduled."

Anders: "You got a color film, Jim? Hand me that roll of color quick, would you..."

Lovell: "Oh man, that's great!"

Initial Setup

Anders was photographing the lunar surface with a modified Hasselblad 500 EL camera loaded with black-and-white film. The camera had to function flawlessly in space conditions, handling significant temperature fluctuations and vacuum.

Spotting Earthrise

The spacecraft was completing its fourth orbit, and as it moved, Borman noticed the Earth rising above the lunar horizon. Anders quickly realized the importance of the scene and wanted to capture it in color.

Switching Film

Anders requested a roll of color film, Ektachrome SO-368, with ASA 64 sensitivity.

He swiftly switched the film, ensuring the settings were adjusted correctly despite the critical time constraint. Before Anders found a suitable 70 mm color film, mission commander Frank Borman took a black-and-white photograph of the scene, with the Earth's terminator touching the horizon.

just before earthrise
The first photograph taken by a human of Earth from the Moon - just before Earthrise

Setting the Exposure

The stark contrast between the brightly lit Earth and the dark lunar surface required precise exposure settings. Anders set the aperture to f/11 and the shutter speed to 1/250 second to balance the luminance of both Earth and the Moon.

Capturing the Image

With the correct film and settings, Anders aimed the camera and took a series of shots, ensuring at least one perfect exposure.

The rapid yet meticulous adjustments demonstrated Anders's technical skill and quick thinking.

The iconic Earthrise photograph was taken by 16:39:39.3 UTC on December 24, 1968. 

It was during the fourth of 10 orbits completed by Apollo 8's command module. The photo is cataloged as AS08-14-2383.

To better convey the sensation of Earth rising over the lunar landscape, the original image was rotated 95 degrees clockwise. The published Earthrise photograph displays Earth rotated approximately 135 degrees clockwise from the typical north-south pole orientation, positioning south to the left.

Experience the Astrography Studio Difference

Original Earthrise photo had its limitations in size and detail due to the era's technology.

Our goal was to remaster this photo to maintain sharpness and vivid detail, even in large formats over one meter.

Using advanced AI and digital retouching, we minimized noise and perfected the color calibration, unveiling previously impossible details for a print of unparalleled quality

  • Premium Quality: We use high-definition printing on the finest paper to bring the iconic Earthrise image to life.
  • Fresh Prints: Each print is made on-demand to ensure perfect quality every time.
  • Lasting Durability: These Fine Art prints will stay pristine for over 200 years.
  • A percentage of each sale supports the Heritage Flight Museum founded by William Bill Anders.

Technical Aspects: How Was the Iconic Earthrise Photo Taken?

Capturing the Earthrise photo wasn’t without challenges. The spacecraft’s rotation, the limited availability of clear windows, and the need for quick reactions underscored the complexity of the task. Taking the Earthrise photo required sophisticated equipment and impeccable timing. The Apollo 8 crew was well-prepared, carrying high-quality photographic gear to document their lunar journey.

  • Camera: Hasselblad 500 EL/M

  • Lens: Zeiss Sonnar 250mm f/5.6

  • Film: 70mm Ektachrome (ASA 64)

Modified Hasselblad Camera

The photograph was taken using a Hasselblad 500 EL camera, which had been significantly modified for use in space. Some key modifications included:

Electric Drive: This feature replaced the traditional manual film advance mechanism, essential for operating in bulky space suits.

Sighting Ring: A simple sighting ring replaced the standard reflex viewfinder, making it easier to frame shots in a weightless environment.

hasselblad 500 EL-M camera used in the Apollo Space Program

Lens and Film

  • Lens : Zeiss Sonnar 250 mm f/5.6 - This long-focus lens was ideal for capturing distant objects with high detail from the spacecraft.

  • Film: Custom 70 mm Ektachrome film developed by Kodak - This color reversal film had an ASA 64 sensitivity, which was suitable for handling the extreme contrasts of light in space.

Exposure Settings

Setting the correct exposure was critical due to the sharp contrast between the brightly lit Earth and the dark lunar surface. Anders used the following settings:

  • Aperture : f/11

  • Shutter Speed : 1/250 second

These settings were meticulously chosen to balance the luminance of Earth and the Moon while capturing the intricate details of both.

Earthrise photo: mastery, coincidence, or maybe a bit of both?

Given the circumstances and technical capabilities, capturing the Earthrise photograph was a remarkable achievement.

The conditions had to be perfect—a crewed mission orbiting the Moon, astronauts with the presence of mind to seize an unplanned photographic opportunity, and the technical equipment to capture it.

The combination of the modified Hasselblad 500 EL camera and the custom Ektachrome film allowed for precise and clear captures that showcased the nuanced beauty of Earth. The camera had to function flawlessly in the extreme environments of space, including significant temperature fluctuations and the vacuum of space.

Anders was photographing the Moon with black-and-white film when he first saw Earthrise. His quick decision to switch films and adjust settings under immense pressure displayed high adaptability and technical skill, ensuring the moment was captured perfectly.

The spacecraft's precise orbital path, the angle of the Sun illuminating both the Earth and the lunar surface, and the advanced Hasselblad camera's capability to capture such a detailed image all aligned perfectly.

Without any of these elements, the photograph that profoundly shifted humanity's perception of Earth would never have been captured.

Does Earthrise photo even have the right to exist?

Foggy windows and shooting photos "blindly," it wasn’t even part of the plan, and the original image had a completely different... orientation.

In this image captured from Apollo 8 at around 110 degrees east longitude, Earth appears to rise about five degrees above the lunar horizon. The horizon, approximately 570 kilometers (or 250 miles) from the spacecraft, is near the eastern edge of the Moon as seen from Earth. The sunset terminator line crosses Africa, with the south pole visible in the white region near the left end of the terminator. North and South America are obscured under cloud cover. The colors of the lunar surface in this print are likely more vivid than they appear in reality.

earthrise photo original orientation
Earthrise Photo: Original Orientation

Be sure to check out Phil Edwards' video. He did an incredible job, and his findings offer a whole new perspective on what we know about Earthrise. The story of this photo encapsulates the magic of photography (not just astrophotography) – it defies plans, scripts, and even scientific assumptions. It's a tale of capturing that one perfect moment.

The Significance: Why Is the Earthrise Photo So Unique?

The Earthrise photo stands out not only for its technical excellence but also for the unprecedented perspective it offers. 

The Earthrise transcended its status as a mere picture to become a powerful symbol of environmental awareness and global unity. This spontaneous photograph shaped societal discourses and inspired a multitude of movements in various sectors.

That photograph, shared globally and always in the public domain, has since served to educate and inspire: The Earth we saw rising over the battered grey lunar surface was small and delicate, a magnificent spot of color in the vast blackness of space. Once-distant places appeared inseparably close. Borders that once rendered division vanished. All of humanity appeared joined together on this glorious-but-fragile sphere.

Wiliam "Bill" Anders

Science and Exploration

The "Earthrise" photo transformed how humanity saw itself. Not only did it highlight our planet’s fragility and isolation in the cosmos, but it also solidified the scientific value of space exploration. By visually demonstrating Earth’s place in the universe, it underscored the importance of continuing to push the boundaries of our knowledge and capabilities in space.

Emotional Impact

The awe and inspiration felt by the astronauts as they witnessed Earthrise was underpinned by the realization of Earth's fragility. 

"We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth." This Anders' statement encapsulates the profound shift in perspective experienced by the astronauts and by those who later viewed the image.

The moment fostered a profound sense of global unity. James Lovell described Earth as a "very delicate, colorful orb, which to me looked like a Christmas tree ornament coming up over this very stark, ugly lunar landscape."

Historical Impact

1968 was a contentious and turbulent year in American history, marked by significant social and political upheaval:

  • Vietnam War: The Vietnam War was at its peak, leading to widespread protests and division within the United States. The anti-war movement was growing, with significant demonstrations across the country.

  • Civil Rights Movement: The struggle for racial equality continued, highlighted by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. His death sparked riots in several cities and underscored the ongoing fight for civil rights.

  • Political Assassinations: Just two months after Dr. King’s assassination, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, 1968, while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. This further contributed to the sense of national crisis.

  • 1968 Democratic National Convention: Held in Chicago, the convention became infamous for the violent clashes between police and anti-war protesters. The televised images of these confrontations shocked the nation and highlighted the deep divisions within American society.

In such a tumultuous context, the Apollo 8 mission and the Earthrise photograph provided a moment of unity and reflection. Frank Borman later received a telegram with a poignant message: "Thank you, Apollo 8. You saved 1968." This reflected the photograph’s impact during a contentious and turbulent year in American history.

Earthrise in Popular Culture

Film and Television

  • "2001: A Space Odyssey" : Although not directly inspired by Earthrise, Stanley Kubrick's film, premiering the same year, echoes themes of human understanding and the cosmic perspective.

  • "Moonwalk One" (1972) : This documentary featured the Earthrise photograph as a pivotal moment in recounting the Apollo mission experiences, reflecting the significance and emotion of this visual.

  • "Silent Running" (1971) : The themes of environmental stewardship and isolation in Earth's fragility echoed sentiments inspired by Earthrise, showcasing a future where Earth’s environment is paramount.

  • "Cosmos" : Carl Sagan's television series references Earthrise to emphasize Earth's fragility and the need for global unity.

  • "For All Mankind" : The 1989 documentary and the recent Apple TV series both incorporate the Earthrise photo, delving into the emotional and historical significance of the Apollo missions.

Poetry, Literature, Music & Lyrics

  • W. S. Merwin: He drew inspiration from Earthrise, infusing his works with themes of interconnectedness and environmental stewardship. His poems and essays often reflect on humanity's relationship with nature and the delicate balance of our world.

  • Archibald MacLeish: In "Riders on Earth Together, Brothers in Eternal Cold," MacLeish captures the profound existential reflections prompted by Earthrise: “To see the Earth as it truly is small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together. Brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold— brothers who know now that they are truly brothers”.

  • Joni Mitchell's "Refuge of the Roads" : The song features references to Earthrise, reflecting on Earth's isolation and beauty.

  • Mike Oldfield : His album "The Songs of Distant Earth" is inspired by Arthur C. Clarke's novel of the same name, which integrates themes of space travel and the visualization of Earth from a distant perspective - echoing the sentiments evoked by Earthrise. Mike used a part of the reading “Apollo 8 Genesis” by Bill Anders in the first and second song

  • Paul Winter : All of his work is dedicated to the Earth - its beauty and uniqueness, and the cover of the Missa Gaia/Earth Mass album, which follows Lovelock's concept, is embellished with a photo of the Earth from space.

  • Michael Jackson: The imagery and themes in "Earth Song" echo the environmental consciousness inspired by Earthrise. He used the ending part of the Apollo 8 Genesis on his song "HIStory" too.

Visual Art, Photography & Stamping

  • Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg : Influential artists who incorporated space-themed and Earthrise-inspired elements into their works, merging art with environmental advocacy.

  • Prints & Poster Art: The photograph has been reproduced on posters and album covers, becoming a symbol of Earth's beauty and fragility. Check all our Earth Prints.

  • Photography Exhibits: Art exhibits focusing on environmental themes often feature Earthrise, showcasing it as a pivotal moment in understanding Earth’s interconnected ecosystems.

  • "Blue Marble" by Ansel Adams: Captured during the Apollo 17 mission, the Blue Marble photograph is another iconic image, often compared to Earthrise, depicting Earth in its entirety and further emphasizing our planet’s fragility and unity.

  • Stamp Commemorations: The U.S. Postal Service issued a 6-cent stamp in 1969 featuring the Earthrise photograph along with the words "In the beginning God…" referencing the Apollo 8 mission's Christmas Eve broadcast. This stamp became widely recognized and cherished, symbolizing global unity and environmental consciousness.

Earthrise Photo: Summary

The Earthrise photograph captured by William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission is more than just an image. It represents a profound moment in human history that shifted our perspective on Earth and our place in the universe. Its legacy continues to inspire and remind us of the interconnectedness and fragility of our planet.

Photograph Origins: Captured by William Anders during Apollo 8 on December 24, 1968.

Technical Details: Taken with a modified Hasselblad 500 EL camera using 70 mm Ektachrome film.

Artistic Impact: Influenced artwork and appeared in multiple prominent publications.

Environmental Significance: Sparked the environmental movement and inspired Earth Day.

Global Symbol: Promoted international unity and cooperation.

Cultural Resonance : Referenced in films, music, poetry, and visual art, the photograph fostered a philosophical and cultural shift towards global environmentalism.

Earthrise' FAQs

What is the significance of the Earthrise photo?

The Earthrise photo captures the first view of Earth from lunar orbit, symbolizing our planet's beauty and fragility, and inspiring global environmental awareness.

Who took the Earthrise photo?

Astronaut William Anders took the Earthrise photo during the Apollo 8 mission on December 24, 1968.

Why is the photo called "Earthrise"?

It is called "Earthrise" because it shows Earth appearing to rise over the Moon's horizon, much like a sunrise on Earth.

What camera was used to take the Earthrise photograph?

The photograph was taken using a modified Hasselblad 500 EL camera with a 250 mm telephoto lens and 70 mm Ektachrome film.

What were the challenges in capturing the Earthrise photo?

Challenges included the spacecraft’s rotation, limited clear windows, and the need for quick camera settings adjustments.

How was the Earthrise photograph developed?

The film was processed at R&R Photo Studio & Color Labs in Corpus Christi, Texas, immediately after the mission to meet NASA's urgent need.

How has NASA commemorated the Earthrise photograph?

In 2013, NASA created a detailed video reconstruction using data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to commemorate the photograph's 45th anniversary.

In 2018, the International Astronomical Union commemorated the event by naming a 25 mile diameter crater "Anders' Earthrise." A smaller crater was given the name, "Eight Homeward." Both craters are visible in the iconic Earthrise photograph.

Why is the Earthrise photo iconic?

It was the first image that provided a comprehensive view of Earth from space, emphasizing the planet’s beauty, fragility, and the interconnectedness of its ecosystems.

What is the legacy of the Earthrise photograph?

It remains a powerful symbol of environmental responsibility and global unity, continuing to inspire across various domains. This photo continues to inspire many artists - from musicians to filmmakers. It already has a permanent place in history and culture around the world.