Thinking Out Loud

December 23, 2018

The Day We All Looked in the Mirror: Christmas Eve 50 Years Ago

We can’t begin to imagine how revolutionary photography was when it was first introduced. There are stories of people totally overcome when first handed an image of themselves. Even today, in a world where there are cameras included in every mobile phone, there are stories of homeless people who have never had anyone take a decent picture for them for whom the experience is emotional overload.

With that in mind, consider something else…

This coming summer, on July 20th, we will celebrate 50 years since the Apollo 11 landing on the surface of the moon. But before that would happen, there was the Apollo 8 mission which entered into lunar orbit. That was Christmas Eve, 1968; in other words, 50 years ago tomorrow.

The team of Frank Borman, William Anders and James Lovell, Jr. were assigned the task of photographing the lunar terrain, no doubt scouting for a suitable landing place for the mission to follow. While Anders was photographing craters there was an earthrise, and there was some discussion about whether they should suspend their task and grab a few pictures of home.

Mission Commander Borman is quoted as saying, “Don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.”

Anders: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.
Borman: Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled. (joking)
Anders: (laughs) You got a color film, Jim?
            Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…
Lovell: Oh man, that’s great!

But of course, just as you and I would do, they broke away from the crater photography and Anders snapped the picture known as “Earthrise” which changed the way we viewed ourselves. Nature photographer Galen Rowell is quoted at Wikipedia as calling it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

Think about it. Nobody had ever seen the earth from the perspective of another heavenly body. Imagine being one of those three people.

Even if for some reason, you lived on the Moon, Earthrise would not be a common sight.

Due to the synchronous rotation of the Moon about the Earth, Earthrise is not generally visible from the lunar surface. This is because, as seen from any one place on the Moon’s surface, Earth remains in approximately the same position in the lunar sky, either above or below the horizon. Earthrise is generally visible only while orbiting the Moon, and at selected surface locations near the Moon’s limb…

Upon return of the crew, the entire population of Earth was collectively handed a picture for the first time which, unlike the pictures taken from Earth orbit, showed our home in a context we’d never seen before. Our first look in the mirror, so to speak.

As Neil Armstrong would later say, “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

Carl Sagan would also write,

Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Truly, it was both magnificent and humbling all at the same.

Appendix 1: Transcript of the Christmas Eve reading from Apollo 8 (The KJV Bible used was provided by the Gideons. Genesis 1: 1-10 was read word-for-word.)

William Anders

We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.[4]

James Lovell

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.[4]

Frank Borman

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

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.

Appendix 2: Several missions later, Apollo 17 would bring back the picture known as “The Blue Marble.”


1 Comment »

  1. I remember, vividly, as a 10 year old boy, coming home from our church’s Candlelight Christmas Eve service, and sitting on the couch at home with family and watching and listening to this unfold. It was amazing then, and still brings tears to my eyes as I remember that Christmas Eve even now :)

    Comment by mwlahn — December 24, 2018 @ 10:00 am

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