Thursday 13 June 2024

The recent death of astronaut Bill Anders led to a lot of the media attention on the famous photo taken by Bill during the Apollo 8 mission called ‘Earthrise’. The photo, taken on Christmas Eve 1968, is often described as being the most viewed image and one of the inspirations for the environmental movement.

Former US Vice President Al Gore used the photo in his ‘An inconvenient truth’ presentation and said:

“That one picture exploded in the consciousness of humans. It led to dramatic changes. Within 18 months of this picture the environment movement had begun.”

The story behind the mission and the photo, like much of the Apollo programme is, incredible. In 1967 and 1968 Apollo was recovering from the terrible fire of Apollo 1 which killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee on the launch pad, while trying to meet President Kennedy’s target of reaching the moon by the end of the decade, and beating the Russians in the space race. The fire required an extensive redesign of the Apollo Command Module to improve its safety which delayed the programme. The fire was in January 1967 and the first crewed Apollo flight, Apollo 7, flew in October 1968 to test the newly designed Command Module and its Service Module. During the planning of the Apollo programme it was envisaged that the next flight would test the Command Module and the Lunar Module in high earth orbit but as 1968 rolled on the incredibly complex Lunar Module was late. At the same time there were intelligence reports that Russia, having completed the uncrewed, circumlunar Zond 5, was planning a manned circumlunar flight before the end of 1968. In August 1968 George Low, then Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, proposed that Apollo 8 leave earth orbit and orbit the moon without a Lunar Module.

The next crew in line, commanded by Jim McDivitt, was offered the flight but turned it down, preferring to stick with their planned joint test of the Command and Service Modules and the Lunar Module in earth orbit. The final decision to proceed with the lunar orbit mission was delayed until Apollo 7 flew successfully but between August and December new procedures had to be developed and the crew trained. The fact that the flight went from proposal to implementation in five months is incredible now. Obviously at some point to land on the moon there had to be a lunar orbital test but there were still a lot of unknowns at that time, and the procedures had to be developed and tested, and the crew trained in a very short time. It was an audacious decision.

Apollo 8 was the first crewed flight, and only the third ever flight, on the massive Saturn V. This in itself is incredible, especially when you see how many test launches some of the current privately financed launchers have made and know that one of the two previous un-manned Saturn V launches had not gone well at all, but NASA was confident they had solved the problems. The launch on 21st December went well, and after two and half hours in earth orbit, the Capsule Communicator (‘CapCom’) Michael Collins – later to become the first person to orbit the moon alone on Apollo 11 – quietly said the words, ‘you are go for TLI’, (trans lunar injection). With the successful firing of the Saturn’s third stage, humans left the relative safety of earth orbit for the first time.

On its flight to the moon and its first three lunar orbits orientated in a way that meant the crew couldn’t see the earth, and so the earth rise was a surprise. As the spacecraft came round the moon Bill Anders saw the earth come up. The first few photos were in black & white but Anders quickly asked for a colour film and got the famous shot. Frank Borman, the Commander, and always a stickler for following the flight plan, said, jokingly: ‘Hey, don’t take that, it is not scheduled’. The photo is usually reproduced with the lunar horizon horizontal but in reality as the spacecraft orbited the lunar equator the moon was orientated 90 degrees to how you normally see it. Bill Anders famously hung a copy in his office in the ‘correct’ orientation (as shown here).

The Apollo 8 crew stayed around the moon for ten orbits and in one of the most famous, and most moving TV transmissions of all time, read from the book of Genesis. Exactly on schedule, and behind the moon, they fired the Service Module’s engine and as they rounded the moon and re-established radio contact with Mission Control, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, later to go on and command the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission in 1970, radioed, ‘Please be advised there is a Santa Claus’. On 27th December the crew safely splashed down in the Pacific and were recovered by the USS Yorktown.

There is no doubt that the photo had a huge impact on our view of the earth, and it did help jump start the environmental movement. It has been reproduced so many times we tend to take it for granted but seeing the earth as ‘the grand oasis in the big vastness of space’, as Jim Lovell called it, has to make you think about the fragility of earth and our place in the universe. Many people might argue that the space race, and indeed any space exploration, is a waste of money. I would argue that it is built into our DNA to explore, and that images like Earthrise which help change our perspective and help us realise our true place in the universe make it worth every penny. Bill Anders once said: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

After Apollo 8 the programme proceeded at an amazing pace. In March 1969 Apollo 9 tested the Lunar Module in earth orbit and included a spacewalk using the lunar spacesuit. Two months later, in May 1969, Apollo 10 flew to the moon in a dress rehearsal for the landing and flew the Lunar Module down to 50,000 feet. Then in July 1969 Apollo 11 made the first landing, only seven months after Apollo 8.

With the passing of Bill Anders, there are now only 6 of the 24 men who visited the moon between December 1968 and December 1972 left alive, and the youngest, is 88. Most of the managers and engineers who made it all happen have also left us. The Apollo programme was an incredible and inspirational achievement and the men and women who made it happen, some 400,000 in total, were truly legends who walked amongst us.


There is 1 comment on “Earthrise – the legacy of Bill Anders and Apollo 8”:

  • John Mulholland on June 13th, 2024 at 2:08 pm said:

    Thanks for this Steve. This photo was one of two things which woke me up to the to the fragility of finite planet earth in an infinite universe. It influenced me to channel my interest in science towards sustainability. Fifty years ago I graduated in chemical engineering and fuel technology. The second influence was a conversation with some hippies at the Isle of Wight Music Festival in August 1970. The hippie said ‘We only have one’ meaning there is no Plan(et) B. So a photo and a conversation made a difference. Also fun to see Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell!

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Dr Steven Fawkes

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