Apollo 8’s Earthrise: The Shot Seen Round the World

Apollo 8’s Earthrise: The Shot Seen Round the World

This is where we live. In space. On a marble fortified against bottomless blackness by a shell of air and color, fragile and miraculous as a soap bubble.

In 1968, we Earthlings knew that already, sort of. But that abstract notion became visceral on Christmas Eve of that year. While scouting landing spots on the moon, the astronauts of Apollo 8 — Frank Borman, William A. Anders and James A. Lovell, Jr. — spied the shiny blue Earth rising over the ash-colored lunar mountains like a cosmic smiley face. That image, transmitted from space, went on to capture the imagination of the world: Earthrise.

Major Anders had the job of photographing the lunar landscape. When Earth rose, a robot would have kept on clicking off pictures of the craters. Indeed the astronauts briefly joked about whether they should break off and aim their cameras up. “Hey don’t take that, it’s not scheduled,” Commander Borman said. Then, like good humans, they grabbed cameras and clicked away.

“Earthrise” did not start environmentalism, but it became the movement’s icon, a gift of perspective at the end of a long, dark year. If you were young, 1968 was the best of times and the worst of times. The Beatles were still together, and “Star Trek” was on TV. You could get high and watch “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the movies. These cultural facets were products of a decade when technological optimism had reigned: you could wage war against communists in Southeast Asia and against poverty and discrimination at home, and conquer space on the side.

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But by the end of the decade, pessimism was ascendant. There was no peace or end in sight in Vietnam, nor on the streets at home, roiling with protests, assassinations and riots. In space, the United States trailed the Soviet Union in a peaceful but symbolic technological competition.

The launch of Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite, startled the world in 1957, and America had been struggling to catch up ever since. President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to landing on the moon before the end of the 1960s, but in January of 1967 a fire in an Apollo capsule killed three astronauts, delaying the project and threatening the deadline.

In the meantime, the Soviets had begun sending uncrewed spaceships around the moon. In April of 1968, intelligence agencies warned that the enemy was gearing up to try to send a man around the moon as early as that autumn.

But by the end of 1968, the United States had pulled even and taken the lead in the race to land humans on the moon. That goal was achieved by Apollo 11 on July 20 of the following year — an event that will be widely celebrated on its 50th anniversary in 2019. But a proper observance begins with Apollo 8’s Christmas Eve loop around the moon: the first indication that the Americans might get there first.

(This event, too, is being widely celebrated, in books such as Robert Kurson’s “Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon,” and the Nova documentary “Apollo’s Daring Mission,” which airs Dec. 26 on PBS.)

Apollo 8’s original mission was to carry a crew of three around Earth, in a command module that had been redesigned and rebuilt since one of its predecessors burned up on the launchpad in 1967. The mission, slotted for December, would mark the first crewed flight of the mighty Saturn 5 rocket.

In those days, NASA’s leaders were still willing to gamble — and so, in August, the plan changed. Historians disagree whether the agency truly feared being beaten to the moon that year or was just keen to get back on schedule. In either case, Commander Borman was called into a closed-door meeting: Would he like to go around the moon in December? It was an offer no astronaut could refuse, never mind that no one had flown on a Saturn 5 yet.

Within weeks the prospective mission had morphed further, from simply looping around the moon to braking and completing an orbit around it. This was a far riskier venture: if the command module rocket failed to fire and break them out of orbit, the astronauts would never come home.

In September, while NASA pondered the mission, the Soviets kept busy, launching a rocket, Zond 5, around the moon and safely returning its crew of worms and tortoises. The Apollo 8 flight was not approved until October, after a crewed flight of Apollo 7 had tested the newly rebuilt command module. On Nov. 11, NASA publicly announced that it would be shooting for the moon the following month.

By then, Zond 6 was on its way — uncrewed, but who knew what might be next. “The September Zond flight scared NASA that the Russians might one-up them one more time by doing it again just before Apollo 8, this time with a cosmonaut aboard,” Roger Launius, NASA’s former chief historian, said recently in an email. (Zond 6 crashed on returning to Earth.)

Apollo 8 blasted off on Dec. 21. Things did not go smoothly at first. On the way to the moon, Commander Borman became terribly sick, forcing his crewmates to dodge specks of vomit and other bodily excretions, according to Mr. Kurson’s book. They chose not to tell Mission Control about it until he had improved, fearing that the mission would be aborted. All of Earth held its breath when the spacecraft went out of view around the moon, entering radio silence, for the engine burn that would put it into lunar orbit.

Seventeen hours later, on Christmas Eve, what NASA has described as the biggest broadcast audience in history was listening when the opening lines of Genesis came crackling down from the heavens.

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth,” Major Anders began.

“And God saw that it was good,” Commander Borman said.

I had tears in my eyes when I heard that. At Mission Control, the rocket engineers all began to cry, according to Mr. Kurson’s book. Like I said, it had been a long year.

It would take a little while longer for the world to realize that Apollo 8’s greatest legacy would be a single photograph of home. The residents of the only known inhabited planet in the universe would “know the place for the first time” (to borrow from T.S. Eliot). Sent to examine the Moon, Major Anders later said, humans instead discovered Earth.

A holiday present for the ages. Alas, it didn’t come with an instruction manual; we’re still working on that.

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