The Iconic Earthrise Photo that Almost Never Happened

Have you ever had one of those days when almost nothing goes the way you planned and you just want to get away from it all? 

I know, Southwest Airlines has an advertising campaign centered around that same theme, but nevertheless, you know the feeling. 

It turns out, 1968 was an entire year like that. The Vietnam war was raging, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and there were riots in many American cities. 

But three NASA astronauts were able to temporarily get away from the tumult. And on Christmas Eve, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, found themselves orbiting the moon. 

And as you can imagine, with the world largely in its state of disarray, the images of the gray moon they sent back to Earth, coupled with their reading from the book of Genesis, captivated everyone on the planet. For a few minutes, the entire messy world stopped, watched and even prayed. 

But as it turned out, this captivating image was not the iconic image of the trip. No, the image that would come to represent their journey was a single picture the crew took earlier that morning with no live TV camera and nobody at Mission Control watching. In fact, it wasn't until the crew had returned and the film had been carried to the lab and hand processed, that anybody saw it. 

It was Earthrise—the living, blue planet rising over the dead lunar horizon. The photo has been credited with starting the environmental movement and has been used on t-shirts, album covers and protest signs. For almost everyone it is a hopeful symbol of global unity. 

“I thought it was a good picture,” astronaut Jim Lovell told me, “but I never thought it would go viral, as we say in today’s terms. I never thought it would be the main message of the mission.” 

And it almost didn’t happen at all. 

Comparing new data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter probe, which has been circling the moon since 2009, with the Apollo 8 astronaut’s photographs, NASA has discovered just how lucky the crew was to capture the shot. 

According to the data, the only reason the astronauts saw the Earth was because mission commander Frank Borman was in the process of rotating the spacecraft, which was pointing nose down at the moon. 

On the fourth orbit of the moon, as the spacecraft moved, astronaut Bill Anders, who was on the side of the cabin facing away from moon, could see the Earth coming up in his window. 

“Oh my God, look at the picture,” Anders is heard saying in a radio transmission. “That’s the Earth coming up. Wow is that pretty! You got a color film, Jim? Hand me a roll of color quick, would you?” 

Lovell scrambles to find the camera, Anders is heard telling him to hurry, and then lamenting that the shot was missed. 

Moments later, Lovell sees the same shot through another window and then asks Anders to give him the camera. Anders, perhaps a bit defensive at having his role as mission photographer impeded, replies that he wants to make sure the settings are correct. Then in a second, takes the photo. 

The chance occurrence produced one of the most iconic space exploration photos ever captured. It became not only a lasting image of the mission but also of a generation that helped create the environmental movement.

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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