Self-reflection from the far side of the moon

Late change in Apollo 8 Mission
50 years ago this month
leads to world-changing photo

Sometimes, stepping back from a problem can help you see things more clearly.

The Earth had its share of problems in 1968. The nightly news brought images of one crisis after another right into our living rooms. Scenes depicting the brutal repression of popular rebellions across the globe, a deteriorating war in Vietnam, assassinations, unrest and division exhausted our capacity to process everything our eyes were seeing. Even here in Chicago that August, the whole world watched as police and antiwar demonstrators clashed in the streets in view of rolling news cameras.

Fifty years later, our picture of that momentous year has been filtered and softened by distance, even nostalgia. Yet at the time, people had the view that the world as we had known it was coming apart.

But a late change in America’s space program made in August 1968 would produce a more peaceful perspective on our world—a gift to humanity sent down mercifully from the heavens on Christmas Eve. It was a photograph, captured unexpectedly, that gave us the distance we so badly needed that year to stop and reflect on our place in the universe, the size of our tribulations, and the significance of our disputes.

In contrast, the decade opened with optimism in America. Despite anxieties stemming from our competition with the Soviet Union, the standard of living for the average citizen was the envy of the world.

In the spring of 1961, weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, a television audience of 45 million watched American astronaut Alan Shepard become the second when he piloted a 15-minute sub-orbital flight on Freedom 7. Two weeks later, the new President, John F. Kennedy, laid down an ambitious new vision for the space program before Congress.

Bolder strides in space exploration would be needed “if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny,” President Kennedy told Congress. “The dramatic achievements in space, which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, … the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”

The President set a lofty new target. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

John Glenn would orbit the Earth the following year. And NASA continued making both manned and unmanned steps toward the moon throughout the 1960s.

In 1967, a tragic fire killed three astronauts aboard the first Apollo mission, bringing manned flights to a halt for 21 months, jeopardizing the late President’s goal and testing the public’s lukewarm support for the entire space program.

Several unmanned flights tested and refined the technology leading to a successful manned Earth orbital flight in October 1968. Apollo 7 was not only the first live televised broadcast from aboard a manned spacecraft, it also reassured NASA regarding the decision it had made in secret two months earlier to alter the mission and the timetable for its most daring journey yet.

Apollo 8 was initially planned to orbit Earth in early 1969 and test the lunar and command modules needed for an eventual moon landing. But that mission was scrapped because the lunar module wasn’t ready. Time was already running out on the end of the decade. Further, NASA officials received faulty intelligence that the Soviets were very close to a manned lunar mission of their own. Plans would need to be shifted to beat the enemy to the moon. So, NASA informed astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders that they were going to go farther than any men before—only they now had less time to prepare.

On Dec. 21, the three men became the first human beings to leave Earth’s gravity as they hurtled toward the moon. The crew’s mission included taking detailed photos of the moon’s cratered surface.

On the morning of Dec. 24, they completed the first three of the planned 10 orbits, never glimpsing the Earth below due to the position of the capsule. The men were so focused on the official mission to document the lunar surface that looking back and comprehending the home planet hadn’t been an objective.

On the fourth orbit, as they came again around the moon’s far side, Commander Borman made the decision to perform a roll maneuver, which changed the views from inside the cabin. Shooting photos out his window of the spacecraft Anders suddenly exclaimed, “Oh my God, look at that picture over there!”

Ascending dramatically against the stark gray expanse of the moon and the black veil of space was a brilliantly illuminated blue ball. “There’s the Earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty!”

Borman joked that Anders not take a picture because it wasn’t part of the flight plan. But Anders urged Lovell to hand him some color film quickly.

After Anders lost sight of the view in his window, Lovell exclaimed that he had it framed perfectly in the hatch window and yelled frantically to Anders hurry over with the camera.

“Calm down, Lovell!” Anders said as he adjusted his camera’s setting.

Anders floated over and took three total images, and the men returned to their work, not fully aware of the significance of what was imprinted and waiting on their undeveloped film.

Later that evening, the largest television audience in history watched a live broadcast from another world with the first humans ever to see the moon up close and our home planet in its entirety.

The crew took turns reading the first 10 verses from the King James Bible to a weary world below. After Borman read the last verse, “and God saw that it was good,” he signed off: “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas—and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

The crew splashed down in the Pacific on Dec. 27. They were honored by Time Magazine as 1968’s “Men of the Year” for their heroics, which set the stage for Apollo 11 and mankind’s “giant leap” in 1969.

“Earthrise,” as it became titled, would be one of the most influential photographs of the 20th century, often credited for inspiring the environmental movement and exalting the ingenuity of humankind. But in the short term, it gave us a new view of home, a symbol of unity, and hope for peace at the end of a turbulent year.

Mark Schmeltzer is a Chicago-based writer who works in non-profit communications.