When the Earth rises over the Moon: the genesis of the “photo of the century”

When the Earth rises over the Moon, the genesis of the photo of the century

The recent death of Frank Borman, commander of the NASA's Apollo 8 mission in 1968, drew attention to the first trip to the Moon.

It took place eight months before the mission Apollo 11, during which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin explored the lunar surface for the first time. However, the impact of the Apollo 8 "Earthrise" photo – the view of the Earth from the Moon – seems even greater today than that of the first moon landing.

For many years, the story behind the famous photo of Earthrise, was that the crew had been caught off guard by the blue orb rising behind the Moon. But even if they were busy with other tasks, the astronauts had in mind that this was going to happen.

Another notable event of the mission was the reading of Genesis (the first book of the Bible) by the crew, the images of which were broadcast around the world at Christmas. My extensive research in the NASA archives revealed more clearly the extent to which all these moments were staged. The famous photo of the Earth rising, a bizarre shot taken in haste, was certainly improvised, but it had been anticipated.

Capturing the Earthrise

After entering lunar orbit, the astronauts almost did not see Earth. It was only during the fourth orbit, when the capsule turned 180 degrees to point forward, that they noticed it. When I asked him, Borman confirmed that at that point they were "caught by surprise – too busy with lunar observation in the first three orbits."

But the director of photography of the Apollo program, Dick Underwood, wanted to reestablish the truth. He explains: "Hours were devoted to lunar observation on the first three orbits", "The lunar crews, including the Apollo 8 crew, were extensively trained and briefed on exactly how to install the camera, on the film to use... these briefings were very complete."

The Apollo 8 crew.
The Apollo 8 crew presenting the Earthrise photo to Texas Governor John Connally in 1969. NASA

However, NASA struggled over which images the astronauts should focus on, with management insisting on shots of the Lunar geology and potential landing sites. Dick Underwood explained:

“I really insisted that we take a photo of the Earth rising, and we made it clear to the astronauts that this was what we absolutely wanted.”

Borman was accompanied by two other astronauts: Jim Lovell, command module pilot, and Bill Anders, lunar module pilot. NASA had planned that Apollo 8 would test the lunar module, but because it fell behind schedule, the mission did not take place.

At the press conference before the launch, Borman was delighted to have "good views of the Earth from the Moon" and Lovell to see "the Earth setting and the Earth rising".

The official mission plan called for astronauts to take photos of Earth, but only as a last priority. When the key moment arrived, the astronauts were indeed taken by surprise, but not for long.

Anders was at a side window taking photos of craters with a black-and-white film camera when he saw the Earth emerge from behind the Moon. “Look at this image! It’s the Earth rising,” Anders exclaimed..

The first photo of Earthrise, taken by Bill Anders. NASA

Anders quickly took a clear photo of Earth emerging from the lunar horizon. Then he and Lovell briefly argued over who should have the color camera, while Borman tried to calm them down.

It was Anders who took the color photo of Earthrise, blurred, hastily framed and overexposed, later nicknamed theimage of the century. But in the other camera was a much better photo, long ignored because it was black and white.

This first mono image was perfect. A restored photo of "Earth rising", recently colorized by experts who took subsequent photos as a reference, recreates the breathtaking spectacle that the astronauts saw.

This photo reveals the Earth as a majestic but fragile oasis. As Lovell said: "The solitude here is overwhelming... It makes us realize what we have on Earth." For Borman, too, it was "intensely moving... We didn't say anything to each other, but perhaps we shared the same thought: This must be what God sees."

Reading Genesis

In 1968, as today, space travel was considered a field of science and technology. But the mission was also sent by one of the most heavily Christianized countries in the world, and the crew did not leave without their cultural baggage.

NASA was proud that its astronauts were free in their opinions, while Soviet cosmonauts were closely monitored and controlled. As extraordinary as it may seem today, they were left free to decide for themselves what they were going to say during their historic live broadcast from lunar orbit.

Borman knew he had to come up with something special for the Christmas show. A few weeks in advance, a publicist told him: "We think you will be listened to more than any other man in history. So we want you to say something appropriate."

While Neil Armstrong's "one small step" message was carefully prepared within NASA, no one at the agency knew in advance what Borman was going to say.

Earthrise
The first photo of Earthrise. NASA

With only two minutes left before radio contact is lost as the spacecraft passes behind the Moon, Anders said, "The Apollo 8 crew has a message to pass on to you." He then read a from Genesis : "In the beginning God created heaven and earth, and the earth was formless and empty. God said: “Let there be light!” And there was light."

Lovell and Borman took over to read the following verses, and Borman concluded: “Merry Christmas, and God bless you all – all of you on our good Earth.”

As Apollo 8 ceased all radio contact, the world was left to absorb the impact of these words. “During those moments, I felt the presence of creation and the creator,” Gene Kranz later recalled, NASA flight director. "I was crying."

Somehow, Borman and his colleagues found the perfect words to express their experience. But Borman had thought carefully about his mission and had asked a publicist friend to help him write the text.

It was Simon Bourgin, head of science policy at the American Information Agency. Bourgin in turn asked a journalist, Joe Laitin, who spoke to his wife, Christine.

After consulting the Old Testament, she suggested, “Why not start at the beginning?” She highlighted the primal power of the creation story in the first book of Genesis, with its evocative description of the Earth.

Borman immediately recognized that it was perfect and had it typed up. He superbly justified the trust that NASA placed in him.

If the photo of the Earth rising and the reading of Genesis are the fruit of inspiration and a certain freedom, their execution is due to careful planning and great professionalism.

Robert Poole, Professor of History, University of Central Lancashire

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of InfoChrétienne.

Image credit: Shutterstock/ Mopic

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