This story of a famous photograph, taken at the end of a horrific year, starts and ends in Kansas

December 27, 2020 3:21 am

On Dec. 24, 1968, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders held a live broadcast from lunar orbit in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. (NASA)

Fifty-two years ago today, Apollo 8 splashed down in the Pacific after taking humanity’s first swing around the moon.

The mission was a triumph of science, discovery and American determination. But in an undeveloped roll of film in the capsule was an image that might be the mission’s most lasting achievement, a self-portrait that continues to inspire hope that we just might transcend our worst impulses as a species.

That image is “Earthrise.”

As a kid I would sprawl in the grass in the big yard beside my parents’ house in Baxter Springs and stare into the night sky. I remember the hazy summer nights, the sharp glitter of the stars in winter, and the whine of trucks on nearby Highway 66. And I remember during the long months of 1968 being frightened, because my parents were frightened.

Then, like now, we were nearing the end of what had been a horrific year.

It had started with the bloody Tet Offensive, which rocked the American military back on its heels in Vietnam. At home, there were assassinations — King in April, Kennedy (Bobby) in June. The chaos surrounding the Democratic National Convention in August was a violent burlesque that shook the very core of American democracy. Outrage piled upon outrage, leaving average folks staring slack-jawed in horror and disbelief at the flickering nightmare thrown into their living rooms from the only screen in the house — a television.

The Cold War was accelerating, and the American and Soviet space programs were neck-and-neck for the shining prize that floated in the night sky: the moon. Despite consumer kitsch like Tang in kitchen cabinets and antigravity space pens that wrote upside down, the colorful trappings of a civilian agency called NASA and the dreams of millions of science fiction fans, the primary aim of the American space program was political. The goal was not just to reach the moon before the end of the decade, as John F. Kennedy had promised in 1962, but to beat the Russians there. And the project built to get us there was named Apollo, after the Greek god of the sun.

But in 1968, the goal seemed as distant as the inconstant moon.

The year before, a flash fire had swept through the Apollo 1 command module while it sat on the launch pad during a test, killing its three astronauts. It was a tragedy that seemed to presage the dark days to come. The moon was a quarter of a million miles away, but the farthest Americans had ventured beyond the Earth was less than a thousand nautical miles, during the Gemini project. The 363-foot Saturn V rocket, the biggest and most powerful ever made, had yet to be used in a manned flight. The lunar module, the spider-like spacecraft designed to actually touch down on the moon, was far behind schedule, plagued with technical and production problems.

But in spite of all this, NASA made the decision to launch three men into space, sending them farther and faster than human beings had ever gone, put them into lunar orbit for Christmas, and bring them back before the New Year.

The Apollo 8 survival kit was a rucksack that contained two radio battery packs, one knife and water containers. Each Apollo spacecraft was equipped with two survival rucksacks. The contents were to be used in the event of an emergency landing in remote areas of the world. (Cosmosphere, Hutchinson, Kansas, cosmo.org)

I remember watching television coverage of the space program obsessively, following every detail as Walter Cronkite would patiently explain, sometimes with models of the spacecraft, each phase of the flights. My space mania had taken hold earlier in the year, when my parents had taken me to see Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the drive-in. This was on the advice of my brother, who was an ROTC cadet at the state college in a nearby county.

I did not know then, of course, that the American space program was largely built on technology developed by the Nazis. At the end of World War II, in a secret operation called Paperclip, the U.S. government had seized truckloads of V2 rocket technology and the teams of scientists and engineers behind it. Wernher von Braun, the architect of the Saturn V, had also been the chief rocket scientist for the Nazis, and his contributions — including gyroscopes for guidance and engines that used liquid fuel — would be the foundation for the U.S. space program. But what most Americans did not know at the time of the Apollo program was that under von Braun’s direction, the German V2s that were hurtled at London and other cities had been assembled with slave labor from concentration camps.

It’s unlikely that any of this was even known to the crew of Apollo 8, which blasted off on Dec. 21, 1968. In the command module were Frank Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders. Their primary mission was a there-and-back proof of concept, to do a photo reconnaissance of the lunar surface and to scout likely locations for a landing. The risks were considerable, including the chance of being stuck in lunar orbit for the rest of their short lives should the engine of their service module fail to fire.

It took nearly three days to reach the moon, and when they entered lunar orbit they were the first human beings to see its far side, which always faces away from Earth. Traveling at 5,000 mph, 60 miles above the lunar surface, their attention was first drawn to the dawning sunlight illuminating the ancient craters below them. But then, as the angles changed as they whipped around the moon, they saw the Earth hanging in space beyond the lunar horizon.

The moment was recalled in September 2018 by Lovell, the command module pilot, at a special event for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8 at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson.

Apollo 8 command module pilot Jim Lovell at a special event for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8 at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson. (Cosmosphere, Hutchinson, Kansas, cosmo.org)

Surrounded by a couple of dozen fellow Apollo-era astronauts and Mission Control crew members, and gently questioned by Robert Kurson, author of “Rocket Men,” the 90-year-old Lovell recalled with impressive clarity the moment leading up to the taking of what may be the most iconic photo in human history.

“Then suddenly I looked up and I saw the Earth come up,” Lovell said. “And I realized what I was looking at was something that was 240,000 miles away. … I put my thumb up to the window and (discovered) I could hide the Earth behind my thumb. Which meant that over five billion people and everything I ever knew was behind my thumb. And it sort of gave me a different feeling of where we are, how we existed.”

Then Lovell grew even more philosophic.

“I looked down at the Earth,” he said, “and it was only one of nine planets in our solar system, it was a mere speck in our galaxy, and of course it was lost to oblivion in the universe. So it got you to start thinking.”

The crew realized it would make a good photograph, even though they joked it wasn’t on the event schedule.

Astronaut Bill Anders, Apollo 8 lunar module pilot, used this camera to take the famous Earthrise photograph on December 24, 1968. (Cosmosphere, Hutchinson, Kansas, cosmo.org)

Anders grabbed a Hasselblad camera and quickly loaded a magazine of Kodak Ektachrome slide film. He took a few photos of the view from the cabin window. Even though television coverage was beaming live from the spacecraft — including the famous Christmas Eve reading from Genesis — it was fuzzy. There was no way to know the power of the image Anders had captured on the Hasselblad. It would be days after splashdown before the film could be processed. The image that would eventually go up in millions of dorm rooms and inspire generations of environmentalists was not released to the world until it ran in “Life” magazine, which had an exclusive contract with NASA for first use of its moonshot images.

The original “Earthrise” was square, but the version most of us are familiar with has been cropped and rotated, giving it a familiar horizon. It is a beautiful photograph, with our living planet of swirling blue-and-white poised above the barren moonscape. It was the first time human beings had voyaged to another celestial body and looked back at home, a fragile speck in the oblivion of space.

All human beings who had ever lived, except for three, had spent their entire lives down there on that tiny blue planet. We are all essentially in a lifeboat floating on a starry sea. National boundaries appeared as they were in the cosmic scheme of things — meaningless.

Apollo 8 returned to Earth as planned on Dec. 27. Borman, the mission commander, had spent most of the early flight sick. Lovell would return to the moon in 1970 as commander of Apollo 13, but would not get a chance to walk on its surface because of an explosion that damaged the service module and aborted the mission. The crew was forced to use the lunar module as an actual lifeboat to return to Earth.

The Cosmosphere has the Apollo 13 capsule on display. It also has several Apollo 8 artifacts, including the camera Anders used for “Earthrise.”

All three Apollo 8 astronauts are still living, men in their late 80s or early 90s.

In this official NASA portrait, William Anders poses with a Gemini, rather than an Apollo, spacecraft. (NASA)

For Anders, Apollo 8 was his first and only spaceflight. He continued to work for NASA, but his lasting contribution to the space program — and to photography, popular culture, the environmental movement and world peace — continues to be “Earthrise.”

I have often stared at the photograph and thought about Christmas 1968, and the months that followed. In July 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the lunar surface. I was again in the yard beside my house in Baxter Springs, at my brother’s side, staring up at the full moon floating against the night sky. The world still seemed a dangerous place. My brother was bound for Vietnam, as an Army lieutenant, in just a couple of years.

A decade and a half later, I was an applicant for the journalist-in-space project, and I remember returning to the newsroom at the Pittsburg Morning Sun one day in January and finding the staff clustered around a small television. The space shuttle Challenger had exploded, killing all seven crew members, including teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe. Spaceflight, which Americans had become bored with, was still risky. The journalist program was soon canceled.

Now, at the end of this year of unexpected risk and challenge, let us trust in science to bring us safely home to normal. This generation’s moonshot are the vaccines that have now properly been distributed to many frontline workers and may reach the rest of us before too many weeks or months. Let us reflect on how technology, whether it is a rocket or a social media platform, are merely tools that can be used to build or destroy.

And let us take advantage of those unexpected moments which present themselves to capture a moment of beauty and wonder, moments which might transcend our limited event schedules and serve to inspire and give hope to generations yet unborn.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.