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‘We went all that way to discover the moon and what we really discovered was the Earth’

NASA’s iconic ‘Earthrise’ photo is 50 years old

On December 24, 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first humans to witness the Earth rising above the moon's barren surface. Anders' photo of the moment changed how we see our planet.
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On December 24, 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first humans to witness the Earth rising above the moon's barren surface. Anders' photo of the moment changed how we see our planet.

On Christmas Eve 50 years ago, astronaut William “Bill” Anders — an Air Force pilot with connections to Bellingham — snapped one of the most famous photographs in history as he and two other members of the first lunar mission watched planet Earth loom above the moon’s horizon.

“We went all that way to discover the moon and what we really discovered was the Earth,” Bill Anders said by email last week through his son, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Anders of Bellingham.

Apollo 8’s goal was to prove that a spacecraft could fly to the moon and back, paving the way for Apollo 11’s successful landing seven months later.

“Earthrise,” as the photograph would be called, is officially NASA image AS08-14-2383.

Apollo 8 was Bill Anders’ only spaceflight, but it was the first manned craft to leave low Earth orbit.

Bill Anders, who now lives on Orcas Island, was also the backup pilot for Gemini 11 and backup command module pilot for Apollo 11, the first lunar landing.

After leaving NASA, Bill Anders founded the Heritage Flight Museum at Bellingham International Airport in 1996 with several vintage planes and has hosted several visits from famed World War II bombers.

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Astronaut William A. Anders, who was the lunar module pilot for the Apollo 8 mission, is shown inside the spacecraft during lunar orbit in December 1968. NASA Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Heritage Flight Museum moved to Skagit Regional Airport in 2013 and still provides local residents with a glimpse of aviation history.

In an interview with The Bellingham Herald last week, Greg Anders said his father, 85, has been overwhelmed by the surge of worldwide media coverage on the 50th anniversary of their mission.

“I was 6 when it happened,” Greg Anders said. “It wasn’t until much later that I realized how important it was.”

Wilderness photographer Galen Rowell called it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken” when it was listed in Life Magazine’s “100 Photographs that Changed the World.”

Greg Anders, however, said his father saw the Apollo 8 mission as just another battle in the Cold War as the U.S. raced the Soviet Union to the moon.

“As a military man who had spent his time serving by intercepting Bear bombers, he was proud to be a part of a minor victory in the Cold War,” Greg Anders said.

It was a photograph that almost didn’t happen, according to the NASA website.

earthrise.jpg
Earth rises above the lunar horizon as Apollo 8 completes an orbit of the moon on Dec. 24, 1968. Astronaut William A. Anders, an Air Force pilot with connections to Bellingham, snapped the photo that has become one of the most memorable images of all time. William A. Anders, NASA Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

NASA has a transcript of conversations among the crew, which included lunar module pilot Anders, mission commander Frank Borman and command module pilot Jim Lovell — who later gained fame as Apollo 13 commander:

“Anders: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that 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!”

For photo buffs, NASA said the camera was a modified Hasselblad 500 EL and used special Ektachrome film developed by Kodak. Its setting was 125th of a second at f/11.

The historic year 1968 was closed out by NASA with a first-of-its-kind accomplishment: putting human beings in orbit around Earth’s Moon, a feat that also provided the people of Earth with their first-ever view of their planet from afar.

Greg Anders said the camera didn’t even have a traditional viewfinder, so his dad had to guess at framing the image.

But what Anders gave the world was a remarkable portrait of its fragile planet.

It came at the end of a horrifying year that saw such events as the Tet Offensive and My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the Prague Spring uprising.

“What Apollo 8 did was that it recovered 1968, what was really a miserable year, and brought it back,” Greg Anders said.

“Apollo 8 50 years ago gave us our Earth,” he said.

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.


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