The Making of an Icon: Earthrise

Written by Ernie Wright, GSFC SVS

The image known as Earthrise, perhaps the most famous photograph of the Earth from space, documents the moment when our planet was seen for the first time by human eyes as it rose above the horizon of another world.

Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968. It was the first crewed mission to leave Earth orbit and travel to the Moon, laying the foundation for the Apollo flights that followed, including the lunar landing by Apollo 11 the following July. The crew—Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders—first witnessed Earthrise on their fourth orbit around the Moon on December 24.

Anders, who was in charge of the photography program for the mission, took three pictures. The first was black-and-white, since that's the type of film that was in his camera. After an anxious, minute-long search by Lovell for a roll of color film, Anders took two color pictures, the first of which would become the famous Earthrise photo.

His crewmates urged him to take more photos, but knowing that they'd have six more orbits on which to see the Earth in this way, Anders replied laconically, “It'll come up again, I think.” (And in fact, Frank Borman took a number of pictures of the rising Earth on orbits 5 and 7, using a shorter lens.)

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) probe arrived at the Moon forty years later, on June 23, 2009. Its mission is to map every square inch of the Moon using cameras, lasers, thermal and neutron detectors, starlight, and radar, as well as to characterize the radiation environment. Among the millions of images sent back by LRO are high-resolution photographs of all six Apollo landing sites.

I am the scientific visualizer on a team of scientists, educators, outreach specialists and video production experts who work together to communicate LRO's science results to the public. In 2013, I used LRO's mapping data and my reconstruction of Apollo 8's lunar orbit, along with data from both Apollo-era and modern Earth-observing satellites, to recreate the view captured in the Earthrise photo.

My original idea was to use this visualization as a novel way to exhibit LRO's excellent terrain data, but the effort quickly turned into a detective story. Working with spaceflight historian Andrew Chaikin, I was able for the first time to determine the orientation and rotation of the Command Module, the precise timing of the three photographs, the astronaut who took all three pictures, and which window each picture was taken through.

The final product of this work is a seven-minute video assembled by my NASA Goddard colleague, Dan Gallagher, and narrated by Chaikin. The video includes three minutes of visualization synchronized with onboard audio of the astronauts. You can hear the click and whirr of the camera and the excited dialog of the astronauts as they marvel at the view and scramble to find color film.

Reflecting on the significance of their mission years later, all three Apollo 8 crewmembers said that while they left on a mission to explore the Moon, what they actually discovered was the Earth.

They were referring to the profound recognition of our home world as a finite, fragile whole, what poet Archibald MacLeish called “the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats,” a “tiny raft in the enormous, empty night.” A place that begs to be studied as a unified system, a place for which every human being shares responsibility.

As Earth Day approaches on April 22, it's easy for us now to take this understanding of the Earth for granted, but before the Space Age, it was relatively uncommon to view the Earth this way. The Earthrise photograph, taken from a distance of 378,700 kilometers, quickly became a literal and influential embodiment of this view, helping to inspire both the environmental movement and, in 1970, the first Earth Day.

You can find the Earthrise video – a perfect video to share as you celebrate Earth Day – on the website of NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio (SVS) and on NASA Goddard’s YouTube page.

For more information about LRO, visit the LRO website, check out the LRO Educators Toolkit or explore other LRO activities on NASA Wavelength!