One Of The Most Iconic Photographs Taken From Space Was A Complete Accident

Tracking down the origin of the iconic "Earthrise" photograph reveals a sense of spontaneity and curiosity that doesn't seem to exist in modern space exploration.

The space program fuels technology and the economy, yet we're cutting funding to NASA every year? Bunk! Bunk, I say!

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Andrew Chaikin: 45 years ago, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first humans to orbit the Moon, and the first to witness the magnificent sight called “Earthrise.” Now, for the first time, we can see this historic event exactly as the astronauts saw it, thanks to new data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO.

LRO’s superb global lunar maps, combined with the astronauts’ own photographs, reveal where Apollo 8 was over the Moon, and even its precise orientation in space, when the astronauts first saw the Earth rising above the Moon’s barren horizon.

On Dec. 24, 1968, a few minutes after 10:30am Houston time, Apollo 8 was coming around from the far side of the Moon for the fourth time. Mission Commander Frank Borman was in the left-hand seat, preparing to turn the spacecraft to a new orientation according to the flight plan. Navigator Jim Lovell was in the spacecraft’s lower equipment bay, about to make sightings on lunar landmarks with the onboard sextant, and Bill Anders was in the right-hand seat, observing the Moon through his side window, and taking pictures with a Hasselblad sill camera, fitted with a 250-mm telephoto lens.

Meanwhile, a second Hasselblad with an 80-mm lens was mounted in Borman’s front-facing window, the so-called rendezvous window, photographing the Moon on an automatic timer: a new picture every 20 seconds. These photographs, matched with LRO’s high resolution terrain maps, show that Borman was still turning Apollo 8 when the Earth appeared. It was only because of the timing of this rotation that the Earthrise, which had happened on Apollo 8’s three previous orbits, but was unseen by the astonauts, now came into view in Bill Anders’s side window. Here’s what it looked like, as recreated from LRO data by Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio.

You’ll hear the astronauts’ voices as captured by Apollo 8’s onboard tape recorder, beginning with Frank Borman announcing the start of the roll maneuver, and you’ll see the rising Earth move from one window to another as Apollo 8 turns.

Frank Borman: All right, we’re gonna roll. Ready…Set…

Bill Anders: The impact crater just prior to the subsolar point on the south side, in the floor of it, there is one dark hole. But I couldn’t get a quick enough look at it to see if it might be anything volcanic.

Bill Anders: Oh my God, look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!

Frank Borman: Hey don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.

Bill Anders: You got a color film, Jim? Hand me a roll of color, Quick, would you?

Jim Lovell: Oh man, that’s great! Where is it?

Bill Anders: Hurry. Quick.

Jim Lovell: Down here?

Bill Anders: Just grab me a color. A color exterior. Hurry up. Got one?

Jim Lovell: Yeah, I’m looking for one. C368.

Bill Anders: Anything. Quick.

Jim Lovell: Here.

Bill Anders: Well I think we missed it.

Jim Lovell: Hey, I got it right here.

Bill Anders: Let me get it out this one, it’s a lot clearer.

Jim Lovell: Bill, I got it framed, it’s very clear right here! Got it?

Bill Anders: Yep.

Jim Lovell: Take several, take several of them! Here, give it to me.

Bill Anders: Wait a minute, just let me get the right setting here now, just calm down. Calm down, Lovell!

Jim Lovell: Well I got it. That’s a beautiful shot.

Jim Lovell: Two-fifty at f11.

Bill Anders: OK.

Jim Lovell: Now vary the exposure a little bit.

Bill Anders: I did. I took two of them here.

Jim Lovell: You sure you got it now?

Bill Anders: Yeah, well, it’ll come up again I think.

Andrew Chaikin: For the astronauts, seeing the Earthrise was an unexpected and electrifying experience, and one of the three photographs taken by Bill Anders became an iconic image of the 20th century. But as we’ve just seen and heard, that photograph was actually a group effort: not just because Jim Lovell found the roll of color film and gave it to Anders, but because the astronauts wouldn’t have seen the Earth if Frank Borman hadn’t been turning the spacecraft just as it was coming up.

Today, the Earthrise has become a symbol of one of history’s greatest explorations, when humans first journeyed to another world and then, looking back, saw their home planet, in Lovell’s words, as a grand oasis in the vastness of space.

I’m Andrew Chaikin, author of “A Man on the Moon.”

There may be small errors in this transcript.
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This video was created by the good people at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. You can see more videos on the NASA Goddard YouTube page.

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