Forty years ago the US launched
its Apollo 8 mission
the first human journey to another world.
Its astronauts captured this astonishing photograph
which revealed the fragility
and isolation of our planet.
It has become one of history's most influential images.
This is the story of how a picture
our view of ourselves
Sunday November 30 2008
Robin McKie guardian.co.uk
This article appeared in the Observer
on Sunday November 30 2008
on p6 of the
Features and reviews section.
It was last updated at 00.06 on November 30 2008.
It has proved to be the most enduring image we have of our
fragile world. Over a colourless lunar surface, the Earth hangs like a gaudy
Christmas bauble against a deep black background. The planet's blue disc - half
in shadow - is streaked with faint traces of white, yellow and brown while its
edge is sharply defined. There is no blurring that might be expected from the
blanket of oxygen and nitrogen that envelops our planet. Our atmosphere is too
thin to be seen clearly from the Moon: a striking reminder - if we ever needed
one - of the frailty of the biosphere that sustains life on Earth.
This is Earthrise, photographed by astronaut Bill Anders as he and his fellow
Apollo 8 crewmen, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, orbited the Moon on Christmas
Eve, 1968. His shot, taken 40 years ago next month, has become the most
influential environmental image, and one of the most reproduced photographs, in
history. Arguably, his picture is also the most important legacy of the Apollo
space programme. Thanks to this image, humans could see, for the first time,
their planet, not as continents or oceans, but as a world that was 'whole and
round and beautiful and small,' as the poet Archibald MacLeish put it.
Certainly, Earthrise is a striking reminder of Earth's vulnerability. We may
have forgotten the men who risked their lives getting to the Moon and who
explored its dead landscape - a 'beat-up' world as they put it - but the view
they brought back of that glittering blue hemisphere continues to mesmerise.
'Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,' the US
astronomer, Carl Sagan, noted. 'There is no hint that help will come from
elsewhere to save us from ourselves.' The opinion is shared by Sir David
Attenborough. 'I clearly remember my first sight [of the Earthrise photograph].
I suddenly realised how isolated and lonely we are on Earth.'
Indeed, says the UK space historian Robert Poole, the first popular expressions
of ecological concern can be traced to the publication of that picture: dazzling
blue ocean, the jacket of cloud and the relative invisibility of the land and
human settlement. 'It is a rebuke to the vanity of humankind,' says Poole.
'Earthrise was an epiphany in space.'
In fact, Nasa [the National Aeronautics and Space Administration] had not
intended to fly to the Moon in 1968. Its lunar hardware was still unproven and
Apollo 8 was slated merely to test equipment in low Earth orbit. However, that
autumn, the agency was told, incorrectly, by the CIA that the Soviet Union was
preparing its own manned lunar mission. So the Apollo programme - established to
fulfil President John Kennedy's call for a US manned lunar landing by the end of
the decade - was accelerated and Apollo 8 designated for a journey to the Moon,
though there would no lander to take men to the lunar surface. That would come
on later missions.
The decision was controversial. Nasa's giant Saturn V rocket, the only launcher
capable of taking men to the Moon, had been bedevilled by flaws and instrument
failures on its two test flights. Worse, there had been the fire in 1967 in
which three astronauts - Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee - were burned
to death during a ground test of an Apollo capsule. Sending Lovell, Anders and
Borman in an almost identical spacecraft to the Moon, on an unsafe launcher, was
a gamble, to say the least.
As a result, most press conferences in the run-up to the launch were dominated
by questions about the risks the astronauts faced and, although the mission
turned out to be a success, and surpassed all subsequent Apollo missions for the
precision of its flight path and lack of glitches, it was dogged at the start by
control-room nerves and tension.
Finally, at 6.31am, on Saturday 21 December, the Saturn V - at 360ft, the
tallest, most powerful rocket ever built and for the first time carrying a human
crew - blasted Borman, Anders and Lovell into space. The launch was shattering.
'The Earth shakes, cars rattle and vibrations beat in the chest,' as Anne Morrow
Lindbergh, the writer and wife of the aviator Charles Lindbergh put it.
In the event, the rocket performed perfectly and put Apollo 8 safely into orbit.
Using a 'state-of-the-art' computer - which had less power than a modern hand
calculator - Lovell keyed in the commands that fired the launcher's third stage
and sent their craft hurtling on its three-day journey to the Moon. The
spaceship had become the first manned vehicle to slip the surly bonds of Earth
and head to another world.
The outward trip was not without its mishaps. As the astronauts settled down for
their first night in space, cramped into a craft the size of a minivan, they
found it difficult to sleep. So Borman tried a sleeping pill. This was a
mistake. A couple of hours later, he was struck by a fit of vomiting and
diarrhoea, a tricky affliction in zero gravity, as Robert Zimmerman recalls in
Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8. 'Borman, Lovell and Anders found themselves
scrambling about the cabin, trying to capture blobs of faeces and vomit with
paper towels. So much for the glamour of space flight.' Certainly, it was an
inelegant way to travel to another world.
Early on Christmas Eve, Apollo 8 reached its destination. The astronauts fired
the craft's Service Propulsion System (SPS) rocket to slow as it swept past the
Moon and the little ship slipped into lunar orbit. For its first three
revolutions, the astronauts kept its windows pointing down towards the Moon and
frantically filmed the craters and mountains below. Reconnaissance for
subsequent Apollo landings was a key task for the mission.
It was not until Apollo 8 was on its fourth orbit that Borman decided to roll
the craft away from the Moon and to point its windows towards the horizon in
order to get a navigational fix. (The capsule's astronauts still used sextants
to guide their craft.) A few minutes later, he spotted a blue-and-white fuzzy
blob edging over the horizon. Transcripts of the Apollo 8 mission reveal the
astronaut in a rare moment of losing his cool as he realised what he was
watching: Earth, then a quarter of million miles away, rising from behind the
Moon. 'Oh my God! Look at the picture over there. Here's the Earth coming up,'
Borman shouts. This is followed by a flurry of startled responses from Anders
and Lovell and a battle - won by Anders - to find a camera to photograph the
unfolding scene. His first image is in black-and-white and shows Earth only just
peeping over the horizon. A few minutes later, having stuffed a roll of 70mm
colour film into his Hasselblad, he takes the photograph of Earthrise that
became an icon of 20th-century technological endeavour and ecological awareness.
In this way, humans first recorded their home planet from another world. 'It
was,' Borman later recalled, 'the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my
life, one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging
through me. It was the only thing in space that had any colour to it. Everything
else was either black or white. But not the Earth.' Or as Lovell put it, our
home world is simply 'a grand oasis'.
Last week, I spoke to Lovell, now a vigorously healthy 80-year-old and owner of
the Lovells of Lake Forest restaurant in northern Chicago, where his son, Jay,
is chef. An experienced astronaut even before he flew on Apollo 8, he achieved
his greatest fame as commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission - which only
narrowly survived a fuel-tank explosion en route to the Moon in 1970. (Lovell
was played by Tom Hanks in Ron Howard's film, Apollo 13, in 1995.) 'Apollo 8 was
a high point for me without a doubt. Apollo 13 was certainly less pleasant. It
was touch and go, after all.' Nor does he fail to appreciate the importance of
that photograph. 'The predominant colours were white, blue and brown,' he
recalled. 'The green of the Earth's grassland and forests is filtered out by the
atmosphere and appears as a bluish haze from space.' The effect is to give Earth
an added, especially intense blue veneer.
'Bill [Anders] had the camera with colour film and a telephoto lens,' he said.
'That is what makes the picture. Earth is about the size of a thumbnail when
seen with the naked eye from the Moon. The telephoto lens makes it seem bigger
and gives the picture that special quality.' (Seven months later, Neil Armstrong
- standing on the lunar surface - also noted he could blot out the Earth with
his thumb . Did that make him feel really big, he was asked years later? 'No,'
the great astronaut replied, 'it made me feel really, really small.')
By Christmas Day, the whole world had become engrossed in Apollo 8's epic
journey: 1968 had been a particularly traumatic year and the planet was
desperate for a diversion. In the US, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had
been assassinated, the Vietnam War had worsened dramatically and civil and
student conflict was spreading through US cities. In Europe, the Prague 'spring'
had been crushed by Soviet tanks. People needed cheer and the realisation that
humans had reached the Moon provided that uplift perfectly.
There was a further twist to the mission's timing. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C
Clarke's visionary epic 2001: A Space Odyssey was then showing in cinemas round
the globe. (The Apollo 8 crew had attended its Houston premiere three months
earlier.) The film ends with the embryonic Star Child hanging in space above the
Earth: a tiny, glittering blue disc very like the one that had just been
pictured by Anders. The links between Apollo 8 and 2001 went further than that,
however. The film depicts space travel as commonplace and there, to prove the
accuracy of its vision, were men orbiting the Moon. It seemed to many people -
including myself, then a university student and a space-programme devotee - that
all those dreams of science fiction writers and film-makers might soon be
realised. It was a wondrous Christmas.
Indeed, it can be fairly claimed that Apollo 8 was the real Man on the Moon
story. By the time, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin reached the Moon on Apollo 11, the
world had already got used to the idea of manned lunar flight. By contrast,
Apollo 8 took many people unawares. Certainly, you could easily argue that it,
and not Apollo 11, deserves the title of the greatest event of the 20th century.
Lovell believes that. 'I sat beside Charles Lindbergh at the launch of Apollo
11. "It's a great event," he said, "but you know you were the ones who really
spearheaded the moon programme".'
Anders, Borman and Lovell orbited the Moon 10 times. Then, as they prepared to
head back to Earth, the astronauts held a last televised press conference. Each
then took turns to read out the first 10 verses of the book of Genesis as they
skimmed, at a height of 70 miles, over the lunar surface. The Old Testament
struck many people as an odd choice for a final lunar reading. But all three (at
the time, at least) were deeply religious: Borman and Lovell were Protestants,
Anders a Catholic. None of them saw any ambiguity in reading out a version of
creation that was at complete odds with the version supported by the scientists
who had got them there. In any case, the reading went down well in America.
A few hours later, Lovell fired the SPS engine again and Apollo 8 began its
homeward journey, splashing down in the Pacific on 27 December. As the
astronauts waited to be picked up by the navy, 10ft waves pounded their craft.
Borman, once again, was sick. Apart from that, their homecoming was a triumph.
After that, Anders' colour film was processed and passed to the media. Time ran
the photograph with single word 'Dawn' while Life published a lengthy display of
images from the mission, including a poster-sized spread of the Earthrise
Seven months later, Apollo 11 reached the lunar surface. It was the beginning of
the end for space programme. Three years later, Apollo 17 lifted off from the
Moon, the last human visit to this dead world. The US public, who had funded the
programme, tired of the Moon and turned to concerns closer to home. 'Looking
back, it is possible to see that Earthrise marked the tipping point, the moment
when the sense of the space age flipped from what it means for space to what it
meant for Earth,' says Robert Poole in his recent book Earthrise: How Man First
Saw the Earth
Humans had spent billions in an attempt to explore another world and in the end
rediscovered their own. It was a point stressed by Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison
Schmitt, one of the last men on the Moon. 'Like our childhood home, we really
see the Earth only as we prepare to leave it,' he wrote.
However, of all the efforts to sum up the story of Earthrise, the best is made
by TS Eliot in last of the Quartets:
'We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.'
• Additional research by Hermione Hoby
Fly me to the moon:
The three astronauts who made history
Apollo 8 pilot (later commander of Apollo 13)
Like his Apollo 8 companions, Jim Lovell came from a modest background. He was
born on 25 March, 1928, the son of a Philadelphia coal furnace salesman who died
when Lovell was 12. As a result, Lovell had to rely on a US navy scholarship to
see him through university. He served in the Korean War before becoming a navy
test pilot and then a Nasa astronaut in 1962. He flew on two Gemini missions
before Apollo 8. Of its three crewmen, Lovell was the only one to return to
space - as commander of Apollo 13. Thus he became one of only three men to
travel twice to the Moon. Gene Cernan (on Apollos 10 and 17) and John Young (on
Apollos 10 and 16) are the others. However, of this trio, Lovell was the only
one who never made it to the surface. Although he was scheduled to land with
Apollo 13, a fuel tank explosion forced its crew to abandon their landing and to
struggle back to Earth. Today, Lovell helps run the Lovells of Lake Forest
restaurant near Chicago, where his son, Jay, is chef, and raises money to help
young students study science and become involved in the US space programme.
Apollo 8 pilot
The son of a US nvay lieutenant, Anders was born in October 1933 and grew up in
San Diego, California, before becoming a jet pilot, joining the Apollo programme
in 1963. Apollo 8 was his only space mission, though he can claim to have made
as great an impact as any other seasoned space traveller on that trip: his image
of Earthrise has become the environmentalists' icon. The mission affected him
profoundly. Once a devout Catholic, he found his experience of space made a
mockery of his beliefs and he gave up religion. Anders served in a number of
senior US government offices before becoming CEO of General Dynamics. He retired
Apollo 8 commander
Born on 14 March 1928, Borman was brought up in Tucson, Arizona, and after
graduating from West Point, served as a fighter pilot before becoming a US air
force test pilot and then an astronaut in 1962. After Apollo 8, Borman left
Nasa, joined Eastern Air Lines and eventually became its CEO in December 1975.
Borman retired from the airline in 1986. He now lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico,
where he rebuilds and flies Second World War and Korean War aircraft.