About two billion years ago, the first photosynthetic algae developed the ability to respond to light – the bright day sun, the spectral moon at night. About 700 million years ago primitive eyepieces appeared; then, during the Cambrian era, arthropod-like creatures looked up into the sky through their true eyes, feeling the rise and the lunar eruption with their arthropod-like understanding. It continued in the following chapters of life, featuring mammals, primates, hominids, and Homo sapiens, the last of them plotting the motions of the Moon and mapping the land full of marks of Earth's companion.
So, 50 years ago, the prospect has changed. Apollo 8 took off in an eight-shape pattern around the Moon, and on December 24, 1968, three NASA astronauts spied the first Earthrise in the history of life. Most of the reminiscences that spread through the media focus on the Earth itself, seen from afar and dazzling. But the true power of the image comes from its juxtaposition of two visions never before seen: our blue planet, wrapped in air, water and hope, contrasted with the extraordinary gray desolation of the Moon.
To feel this power completely, you need to see Earthrise not as a photograph but as an event, an experience immersed in your time and place. I recently had the opportunity to do just that at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Carter Emmart, the museum's director of visualization, organized a tribute to Apollo 8 that combines original images of astronauts with documentary clips about the United States in 1968 and, more importantly, detailed simulations of the Apollo 8 trajectory around the Moon. allows you to watch the lunar landscape sliding underneath, synchronized with the astronaut's conversations with the control of the mission, to bring back the grand totality of the moment the Earth emerged from behind the dusty edge of the Moon.
Most people will not get the chance to visit the museum but can recreate much of the event based on features that are readily available online – some of them created with the assistance of Emmart. He provided a useful list of these features, which we include at the end of this post. But first I wanted to share some of your thoughts on the revival of Apollo 8, along with the memorable words of the Apollo 8 astronauts themselves.
It seems bittersweet, remembering such a great moment when we have not returned to the Moon since Apollo 17. Do you feel that way too?
Emmart: People say, "We could have been on Mars in the mid-1980s if we had kept the direction." The truth is that the goal of going to the moon was attacked by politicians as soon as it was announced. But, in fact, those are minor details. The Apollo 8 is a monument and will not disappear. You can visit the Smithsonian and see the pieces of Apollo, but the actual monument is in the sky. It reminds us that this world is a bridge to the universe. The Earth is just another orb, we are in the sky of the Moon, just as the Moon is in ours.
The future is happening more slowly than we expected, but our visualization capabilities allow us to go the other way.
What did you learn about the Earthrise moment when you re-created it?
Emmart: This image has such a legacy. When you think of Apollo, think about that image. Before, the Moon was something in a romantic and mythological landscape. Then, suddenly, we were there, above this desolate landscape – "magnificent desolation," as Buzz Aldrin said. The lifeless moon below the earth, where all we live is what we know. I also wanted to be able to watch the Earth in real time as the Apollo 8 crew fired their rocket engine for translucent injection to see Earth shrink.
The Apollo program was all about going out there. The lunch boxes were over the moon. Kennedy's speech was about the moon and the stars. But when we got there, we looked back and this really changed things. It ignited the environmental movement. The Earth has never been without conflicts, but 1968 was a particularly difficult period. With Apollo 8, we looked at all the screams and shouts and everything that was dividing us, and we saw the counterpoint: this is our place, it's beautiful and it's alive. It is in contrast to the non-living Moon.
You talk about Earthrise as a spontaneous moment. What do you mean by that?
Emmart: NASA was thorough about everything, even fraction of a second, but the Earthrise photos simply happened: "Yeah, I'm going to take a picture of that." He connected on such a human level. When the astronauts tried to say something appropriate to say [on their Christmas Eve broadcast], they chose Genesis of the Old Testament, one of the deepest and most common myths of origin. This was a surprise even for the flight controllers. Gene Kranz [the NASA flight director] said he had tears in his eyes because it was so vast.
Looking back, the Earth was really deep. We knew what our planet was, but we did not. to know until we saw.
The feeling of desolation really appears in the words of the astronauts and in the visuals when you watch the complete Earthrise unfold.
Emmart: I do not want to be a contrarian and say, "Listen to what they said about the moon, it's terrible!" But it's a reflection on that. With the visualization of energy, I felt this desolation looking at her. All three [on Apollo 8] spoke about how beautiful the Moon was, but it had an absolute and unbelievable quality. Lonely. It is not a very inviting place to live or work. I think NASA was freaking out. [about the gloomy tone of their comments]. But I'm glad NASA has not ruled their reactions. They reacted in a very human way.
How did this feeling of desolation affect the way they perceived Earth?
Emmart: You hear the astronauts talk about how the darkness of space had a personality about it. [Apollo 17 astronaut] Gene Cernan said roughly, "You see the sun and it's resplendent, it's very clear to look at, and then you turn aside and that light goes out in the darkness you swallow." It is a darkness that is almost beyond conception. And then the light hits something! When it hits the Moon, it's coal ash. Now take the charcoal gray and rotate the white of the earth's clouds and the blues of the ocean and the greens of the vegetation and the browns of the desert.
This is an artist's palette, a palette you do not see anywhere else in the solar system. The earth shines with life. Then you look at the moon. It's outside our magnetosphere, it has earth that is glass, it's a really difficult place. That's the important message of the Apollo 8 photo. The mission was about beating the Russians on the moon, too, but then it turned into a surprise moment for Kumbaya. It's us, all of us, together in the photo, whether we like it or not.
Apollo 8 astronauts must have the last word, so here are their own spontaneous reactions to looking at the Moon, in contrast to the vibrant blue spirit of Earth.
Frank Borman: The moon is a different thing for each of us. I think each of us – each carries his own impression of what he sees today. I know my impression is that it is a vast, solitary, forbidding existence, or extension of nothingness, which looks more like clouds and pumice clouds, and certainly would not seem like a very inviting place to live or work. .
Jim LovellMy thoughts are very similar. The vast solitude here of the moon is inspiring and makes you realize exactly what you have on Earth. The Earth here is a great oasis in the great vastness of space.
Bill Anders: I think the thing that impressed me most was the sunrises and lunar sunsets. These in particular highlight the stark nature of the terrain, and the long shadows really bring the relief that is here and it is hard to see on this very bright surface we are passing now … The sky up here is also quite prohibitive, foreboding blackness, without stars visible when we are flying over the moon in the light of day.
ADDITIONAL FEATURES that allow you to share the Apollo 8 experience:
OpenSpace software is designed for the type of trajectory information that describes the precision of the fraction of a second needed to accurately describe space missions. The site has open source download, description and videos, including tutorials.
Researchers at NASA-JPL and the Ames Research Center have built a wonderful intuitive browser that can also display 3D views and model output for 3D printing of the Moon.
NASA Goddard has a fantastic browser of temporal data on Earth as well. You can go straight to the pictures if you want.
Carter Emmart worked with a group of students to use photogrammetry to give new life to the old Hasselblad images of the Moon.
We still have the full Apollo 8 crew alive, the only complete crew remaining. They were honored last month at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry with presenter and author Robert Kurson, who wrote his story recently in the book Rocket Men. There is a video record of this unique memorable event.