The astronauts had already circled the moon a few times, their gaze directed toward the gray, brimmed-up lunar surface. But now that they completed another orbit of the moon on Christmas Eve 1968, Frank Borman, the commander of the Apollo 8 mission, rolled the spacecraft, and then there she was.
Earth, this bright and beautiful sphere, alone in the vastness of space, a soloist on the edge of the stage suspended in the center of attention.
"Oh, my God," exclaimed Bill Anders, the pilot of the lunar module. "Look at that picture there! There is land coming. Wow, this is beautiful!
Anders knew the black and white film would not do it justice. But he also knew that he would not have much time if he were to take the picture.
"Give me a quick roll of color, you will," he said.
"Oh man, that's great," said Jim Lovell, pilot and navigator of the command module.
"Hurry up," Anders pleaded. "Fast!"
Anders carried the colored film in his Hasselblad camera and began firing, while his anxious crewmates remained paralyzed by the blue and white vision outside their windows.
"You understood?" Lovell asked.
They dived into the Pacific on December 27.
Two days later, the film was processed, and NASA released the number 68-H-1401 to the public with a press release that read: "This view of the rising earth hailed the Apollo 8 astronauts when they came from behind the moon after the insertion of the burnt lunar orbit. "
The press immediately recognized the power of the image, the Earth, a bright oasis in a desert of darkness. The New York Times ran on the first page above the fold. The Washington Post followed a day later. Life magazine published a photo essay with a double page of the image and lines of James Dickey, the former poet laureate of the USA:
"Here is the blue planet immersed in your dream / reality."
"Earthrise," as it would be called, was viral, or as viral as anything else in 1968, a time when all sorts of photographs made their mark on national consciousness, mostly scars: the South Vietnamese general pointing his pistol. on the soldier's head, in white; the waiter's helper taking care of the lifeless body of Robert F. Kennedy; the civil rights activists on the motel porch pointing in the direction of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassin.
"Earthrise" was something different. A balm for a nation torn apart by the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, protests and assassinations.
In the foreground there was the "magnificent desolation" of the lunar surface, as Buzz Aldrin would later call "a lifeless planet, devoid of color, juxtaposed with a distant cousin in the background, radiant like spring, bright in blue and white.
There were images of Earth thrown from space before. But these images were mostly black and white and blurry. They did not have the liveliness of Anders's picture, the simplicity and the excitement that perhaps could be explained by the fact that many of the earlier photos were taken by robots and "Earthrise" by a human – "an enthusiastic astronaut, probably homesick . with a finger on the trigger of this Hasselblad, "as Stewart Brand, the founder of Whole Earth Catalog, put in an interview.
Brand was looking for an image like this that could galvanize the country and trigger a movement. He led a campaign asking, "Why have not we seen a picture of the whole Earth yet?"
And here came "Earthrise," a picture perfect and humanly imperfect at the same time – the horizon leaning, the Earth slightly off center, a rare moment of imprecision during a mission that depended on the exact measurements of its military-trained astronauts.
In the photo, Earth is an island with a strange and familiar geography. There is Africa appearing beneath the clouds, but the North is on the right, not the top, a world made upside down by the disorienting distance of 240,000 miles.
The United States began this unlikely journey to defeat the Soviets, to claim the supreme terrain and national superiority that would come with it. In their flight attire and crew and probity cuts of all Americans, astronauts were the arm of the nation's power, a projection of power. They came, of course, back from the victorious rift – the first men to come out of Earth orbit and wander around the moon.
Their triumph, held in duct tape, was to be measured in the impetuous impetus of the Saturn V rocket, propelling them deeper into space than any before. But it was also found in the unexpected discovery captured in this simple photograph buried in the film rolls they brought home – land masses without borders, the thin layer of the atmosphere, a unifying expression of vulnerability, something that Pope Paul VI would say. , recalled "the stunting proportions of the universe in relation to our infinite littleness."
It turns out that military pilots turned the astronauts into artists as well.
"Earthrise" soon replaced another dominant image of the time, the mushroom cloud.
"His iconic power has gone, at least in representing modern times," Brand said. "Over the course of a few years, you had a universal icon based on fear, giving way to a universal icon based on what people considered hope and enthusiasm."
"Earthrise" also helped feed the environmental movement. Which was ironic, since many environmentalists in the 1960s were firmly against the Apollo program. Why spend all this money going into space when there are real problems here on Earth?
The first Earth Day was held about 16 months later, and today the image endures as a symbol of unity.
"When I looked at the Earth, which is the size of your fist at arm's length, I think:" This is not a very big place. Why can not we get along? "Said Anders during a video that was recently recorded during a ceremony at Washington National Cathedral celebrating the 50th anniversary of the mission. "For me it was strange that we had worked and came to the moon to study the moon, and what we actually discovered was the Earth."