Joe Moran: the story behind our planet’s most famous photo, December 24, 1968

First posted December 22, 2018

When Bill Anders took this photograph from the Apollo spacecraft on Christmas Eve in 1968, our relationship with the world changed forever .This photograph is now half a century old. It was taken by the astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 as the Apollo 8 spacecraft rounded the dark side of the moon for a fourth time. When Earth came up over the horizon, Anders scrabbled for his Hasselblad camera and started clicking. In that pre-digital age, five days passed. The astronauts returned to Earth; the film was retrieved and developed.

In its new year edition, Life magazine printed the photo on a double-page spread alongside a poem by US poet laureate James Dickey:

And behold / The blue planet steeped in its dream // Of reality, its calculated vision shaking with the only love

The Earth from Apollo 8 as it rounded the dark side of the moon. Photo: Nasa/AFP/Getty Images

NASA Brings Iconic Apollo 8 ‘Earthrise’ Photo To Life (VIDEO)

This was not quite the first look at our world from space. Lunar probes had sent back crudely scanned images of a crescent Earth shrouded in cloud. A satellite had even taken a colour photo that, in the autumn of 1968, the radical entrepreneur Stewart Brand put on the cover of his first Whole Earth Catalog. The next edition, in spring 1969, used Anders’s photograph, by now known as Earthrise.

Brand’s catalogue was a DIY manual for the Californian counterculture, a crowd-sourced compendium of life hacks about backpacking, home weaving, tantra art and goat husbandry. Its one-world, eco ethos was a weird offshoot of the macho tech of the space age – those hunks of aluminium run on rocket fuel and cold war rivalries. But then looking back at Earth was itself a weird offshoot of the moon missions. It just happened that Apollo 8’s aim – to locate the best lunar landing sites – needed high-res photography, which was also good for taking pictures of planets a quarter of a million miles away.

Brand was one of a group of environmental activists who felt that an image of “Spaceship Earth” would bring us all together in watchfulness and care for our planetary craft and its precious payload. “Earthrise”, though, did more than just corroborate this gathering mood. With its incontestable beauty, a beauty that had needed no eye of a beholder for billions of years, it caught the human heart by surprise… read more: