On Christmas Eve 55 years ago an astronaut snapped a photo that caught the world’s attention. The global selfie made us rethink our place in the universe.
On 24 December 1968, 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.” (Credit: NASA)
In a year of crisis across the world, one Christmas photo made the world gasp in collective amazement.
It was 1968. The Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia to crush an attempt at political liberalisation, the Tet Offensive signalled a major escalation in the Vietnam War. Violent student protests raged worldwide and the assassinations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy shocked Americans.
Then, at the end of the turbulent year, something unique in human history took place.
Three U.S. astronauts were headed to the moon on Apollo 8. For the first time, mankind was about to reach beyond the earth in a small spacecraft.
The Apollo 8 capsule had just enough room for Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders and their bulky spacesuits, along with the control and instrument panel and supplies for a six-day journey.
Shooting for the moon
All the Apollo missions pushed the boundaries of what was possible in spaceflight.
More than six years earlier, U.S. President John F. Kennedy vowed to reach the moon within a decade to counter the humiliation the nation felt over the achievements of the Soviet Sputnik program which sent satellites, people and even a dog into space.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” Kennedy declared in a speech in September 1962.
Kennedy promised that the United States would send a man to the moon and return him safely. He didn’t live to see that achievement but his words inspired the drive to reach the moon and set the timetable to do it.
In December 1968, the end of the decade was one year away and there was a long list of things that could go wrong. The navigation of Apollo 8 had to be absolutely precise or it could miss the moon — a distance of 370,000 km from the earth — by less than 160 km.
The mechanics of getting a manned spacecraft into and out of the right trajectories for moon orbit had never been attempted before.
The difficulties of space travel
There was a further complication. At one point, all the mathematical equations had to shift from earth-centred calculations to lunar-centred. Those computations had to factor in leaving the gravitational pull of earth and entering the gravitational tug of the moon. And then to do the same in reverse.
NASA technicians tried to explain these mechanics in briefing the media with limited success. But the bigger story, that had not been considered, was about something which would prove more profound than understanding the physics of spaceflight.
Photographs and television images of our planet from low earth orbit had been seen many times. But the impact of the view from Apollo 8 as the crew pointed their cameras back at the earth on their journey into deep space took everyone by surprise, even an astronaut training for a moon mission.
Astronaut Michael Collins, who in1969 was the pilot for the Apollo 11 moon landing, wrote about the power of the images from Apollo 8.
“At 200,000 miles, the minuscule egg framed in the spacecraft window seemed eerie, even surrounded by the familiar plastic rim of the television set,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Was that us?”
Collins declared himself shaken and praised Lovell’s description of earth as “a grand oasis in the great vastness of space.”
Seeing the Earth in the moonlight
The photograph of the ‘whole Earth’ taken en route to the moon by the Apollo 8 astronauts was credited as the start of the environmental movement.
Apollo 8 gave us a second iconic image two days later as they orbited the moon on Christmas Eve.
Astronaut Bill Anders was photographing the lunar surface, grey and pock marked by craters, as the spacecraft rounded the far side of the moon for the fourth time. The Earth appeared over the moon’s horizon, shimmering blue in the blackness of space.
Anders scrambled for the camera loaded with colour film and snapped the famous ‘Earthrise’ photograph.
A few hours later, Anders, Borman and Lovell addressed what NASA said at the time was the largest audience that had ever listened to a broadcast.
The Apollo 8 astronauts delivered a Christmas Eve message of peace by reading from the The Book of Genesis in the Bible. Their message closed as follows:
“And from the crew of Apollo 8,
We close with good night,
Good luck, a Merry Christmas,
And God bless all of you —
All of you on the good Earth.”
The mission of Apollo 8 was hailed as inspirational. Not only had our scientific understanding expanded but navigating into deep space had created a sense of wonder which was sorely needed after a year of world strife.
Since mankind evolved, humans have revered, contemplated and gazed in awe at the moon. Then in December 1968, astronauts orbited the moon and we looked back at the earth together.
Hear Apollo 8’s message to the world here:
Three questions to consider:
- Can the accomplishments of humankind in space be cause for optimism in the future?
- When men —and women — walk on the moon again, will it be a unifying moment for people on earth?
- What mesage would you send from the moon?
Tira Shubart is a freelance journalist and media trainer based in London. She has produced television news and trained journalists across four continents for international broadcasters, including BBC News, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Al Jazeera, over several decades.