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Repost: The real meaning of the Apollo 8 Earthrise image

I wrote this essay in 2018, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon. I think it worth reposting again, especially because stories about Apollo 8 still refuse to show the Earthrise image as Bill Anders took it.

Earthrise, as seen by a space-farer
Earthrise, as seen by a space-farer

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the moment when the three astronauts on Apollo 8 witnessed their first Earthrise while in orbit around the Moon, and Bill Anders snapped the picture of that Earthrise that has been been called “the most influential environmental picture ever taken.”

The last few days have seen numerous articles celebrating this iconic image. While all have captured in varying degrees the significance and influence of that picture on human society on Earth, all have failed to depict this image as Bill Anders, the photographer, took it. He did not frame the shot, in his mind, with the horizon on the bottom of the frame, as it has been depicted repeatedly in practically every article about this image, since the day it was published back in 1968.

Instead, Anders saw himself as an spaceman in a capsule orbiting the waist of the Moon. He also saw the Earth as merely another space object, now appearing from behind the waist of that Moon. As a result, he framed the shot with the horizon to the right, with the Earth moving from right to left as it moved out from behind the Moon, as shown on the right.

His perspective was that of a spacefarer, an explorer of the universe that sees the planets around him as objects within that universe in which he floats.

When we here are on Earth frame the image with the horizon on the bottom, we immediately reveal our limited planet-bound perspective. We automatically see ourselves on a planet’s surface, watching another planet rise above the distant horizon line.

This difference in perspective is to me the real meaning of this picture. On one hand we see the perspective of the past. On the other we see the perspective the future, for as long humanity can remain alive.

I prefer the future perspective, which is why I framed this image on the cover of Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8 the way Bill Anders took it. I prefer to align myself with that space-faring future.

And it was that space-faring future that spoke when they read from Genesis that evening. They had made the first human leap to another world, and they wished to describe and capture the majesty of that leap to the world. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

Yet, they were also still mostly Earth-bound in mind, which is why Frank Borman’s concluding words during that Christmas eve telecast were so heartfelt. He was a spaceman in a delicate vehicle talking to his home of Earth, 240,000 miles away. “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.” They longed deeply to return, a wish that at that moment, in that vehicle, was quite reasonable.

Someday that desire to return to Earth will be gone. People will live and work and grow up in space, and see the Earth as Bill Anders saw it in his photograph fifty years ago.

And it is for that time that I long. It will be a future of majesty we can only imagine.

Merry Christmas to all, all of us still pinned down here on “the good Earth.”

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.


The print edition can be purchased at Amazon. Or you can buy it directly from the author and get an autographed copy.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • Allan

    And Merry Christmas to you, Mr. Zimmerman:

    Help! I am being taken in by the ‘We never went to the moon’ debate.
    All this about the Van Allan belt, the shadows and the lighting, the strange behavior of some of the astronauts and things they have said, the missing archives, we haven’t been back since, and the size of the rover wouldn’t fit in the Eagle. The last I saw was Putin being briefed, by experts with illustrations, that we didn’t go.
    Could the stunning photo above been taken by an unmanned craft?
    I’m pretty sure about the grassy knoll. Now I am to wonder about a studio production of moon landings like the one comically part of the 1971 James Bond film, Diamonds are Forever, about 59 minutes into the movie.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Just out of curiosity, has anyone identified the cloud-occluded continental landmasses visible in the shot?

  • Ray Van Dune: I am sure someone has. I might have figured this out years ago but don’t remember. In looking at my hi-res version of the Earthrise image, my guess is the brown continent in the upper right near the terminator is the western half of Africa, with South America to the lower left.

  • Jay

    You are correct. Looking at the high resolution photo on the NASA site, I can see Africa on the right and parts of South America on the left. Hard to tell if those are clouds over Antarctica or Antarctica itself or probably both!

  • wayne

    Apollo 8 Genesis Broadcast
    December 24, 1968

  • “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

    Carl Sagan

    14 February 1990

    The message transcends the speaker, as does the Message this Christmas.

  • Jeff

    Ray Van Dune wrote: “Just out of curiosity, has anyone identified the cloud-occluded continental landmasses visible in the shot?”

    If the time Ayers snapped the photograph is known, using this page could help identification. The link is set to noon Dec 24, 1968 in Houston. Scroll down to enter more precise time/date.

    As shown, this would confirm the western coast of Africa and all of South America in sunlight.

    Blair Ivey – Thanks for the Pale Blue Dot quote. One of my favorites.

    Merry Christmas to all.

  • pawn

    Carl Sagan summarizes my personal perspective on why I feel space exploration is so important.

    It’s very hard to build an economic case.

    It is, in it’s essence, a spiritual one.

  • Frank

    Merry Christmas Bob. I enjoy and learn from your work.

  • Ray Van Dune

    I recall seeing a photo snapped from the Command Module by Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins, that included both the Earth and the Lunar Excursion Module containing astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin.

    He labeled it something like “A photo containing every human being, except me.”

  • wayne

    Ray Van Dune-
    Excellent Story!

    The Rentals (2020)
    “Forgotten Astronaut,” A song for Michael Collins

    “They got names like superheroes, bigger than The Beatles, or I could ever be…”

  • markedup2

    I think you may be over-thinking the framing, but I appreciate it. I never knew it wasn’t originally framed “moon down”.

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