The real meaning of the Apollo 8 Earthrise image


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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 a 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.”

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12 comments

  • wayne

    Mr. Z.,
    Good stuff!

    a repeat from me….

    CBS News Coverage of Apollo 8
    (part 37; Christmas Eve Reading Of Genesis)
    https://youtu.be/1aIf0G2PtHo?t=303

  • wayne

    Apollo 8 Manned Space Flight
    Film Report 1968 NASA; First Manned Moon Mission
    https://youtu.be/83cGclY9OZk
    22:50

    and, brand new–
    (very well put together)

    Apollo 8: Mankind’s Most Epic Journey
    Frank Borman
    700 Club, 12-5-2018
    https://youtu.be/lyZGKNpB5k8
    15:47

  • Andrew R

    I’ve had that image on my wall for some time (in one of those edgeless clip-frames).

    I just went over and turned it as you show it on your book cover and this entry.

    I like it.

  • Wodun

    Someday that desire to return to Earth will be gone.

    The desire will never be gone. Earth is our ancestral home and most suited to us physically and spiritually. But not everyone will be able to return due to financial, time, or human factors constraints. There will be a longing unable to be fulfilled. It is something to consider, especially for those who start families off Earth.

    Nice explanation about the picture and Merry Christmad everyone.

  • Gary

    We will never know, but I think that after a few dozen generation off-world there might be a longing among them to return ‘home’.

  • m d mill

    “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.”

    This statement is ridiculous in any significant time frame.
    What a paradise this good earth is,
    especially after seeing this picture. I think that is exactly what Anders was expressing.
    It is a strange (boyhood?) fantasy to think it will somehow be fundamentally better “out there”, and to long for the days when this paradise will be forgotten and unappreciated.
    Space will be fundamentally expensive and dangerous for the foreseeable future (space “wants” to kill you, and is unforgiving of the slightest mistake), the earth is fundamentally the nest of life, a paradise.
    And merry Christmas to you all.

  • Edward

    Gary wrote: “after a few dozen generation off-world there might be a longing among them to return ‘home’.”

    I don’t know. How many of us long to return to places that our ancestors came from? For us, it is not so expensive, time consuming, or gravitationally challenging.

  • Phill O

    Considering the political turmoil of that time, there may be hope yet despite current racial divides deepened by the last admin.

  • Tim Kyger

    I was a Patrol Leader (Boy Scouts) and we named our Patrol the Earthlight Patrol. FWIW. This was 1969.

  • wayne

    Tim Kyger-
    Good stuff!
    My dad was a troop-leader, my uncle earned a Silver Beaver Award (55 years in) and we have two Eagle scouts in the extended family.
    ( It’s a darn shame, they went all progressive-crazy and are now committing suicide.)

  • Chris

    All representations of this iconic shot of the earth from the moon should be on an iPod (as I’m seeing it now). If you try to move it to the horizontal, the iPod corrects the view.

    Belated Merry Christmas all.
    I was in Toronto for the last few days – I highly recommend a visit.

  • Gary

    @Edward
    The human longing for home currently is expressed by the millions who trace their genealogies, not necessarily to return to ancestral ways, but to know about them. Deep space travel, like time, may prevent return; it’s unlikely to change human emotion.

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