You’re looking at the greatest photograph ever taken.
It’s an astonishing image, spellbinding even, especially given the unforeseen interlude of the snapshot and the tumultuous times unraveling back on earth at the instant that it was taken. The image is a blaze of contrasts, and for many — an inspiration and a call to action.
This photograph was snapped by William Anders in late 1968. Anders was one of three astronauts aboard the Apollo 8 space mission. Remarkably, Anders had no prior experience in photography, and yet his image has been called “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” Not bad for an amateur. The photo was even something of an accident. It wasn’t planned.
Later named “Earthrise,” we see the earth in the distance which appears as an oasis of vibrant colors floating in the dark abyss of outer space. The foreground shows the moon’s surface up close for the very first time, directly beneath the Apollo 8 spacecraft. Contrast this image with grainy black and white television images transmitted back to earth from the lunar capsule, and the differences are striking. We take these images for granted now, but at the time they were taken and later splashed around the world in media, we were in awe.
This image was a first in so many ways. Earthrise was the first photograph to show the earth in its entirety. While some of earth is concealed by a shadow and we can’t see the other side of the planet, it’s still the first comprehensive photo of all of humanity and the place we call our home. Still, let that sink in. Before this instant, we never quite knew what the whole earth looked like. Previous manned space missions had beamed back many stunning images, but they were taken much closer to the earth’s surface. Until this mesmerizing moment, we’d never seen ourselves truly as one. In a sense, it’s the first “group shot” of everyone on earth.
This is us.
The timing of the photo also adds significantly to its power over us. From space, we see what seems to be a peaceful planet. But the historical backdrop to this photo was the terrible year that was 1968. The world was in chaos. This was the height of the Vietnam War. The two superpowers were locked in a death-stare of conflicting ideologies, both sides stanchioned by thousands of nuclear warheads. At the time, the U.S. didn’t even recognize the largest nation on earth, the People’s Republic of China. Apartheid was the law of the land in South Africa. Famine and starvation raged across parts of Asia and Africa. Tensions were brewing in the Middle East, which had just come off a war between Israel and the Arab States in the prior year. Central and South America were in the midst of their so-called “dirty wars,” as many countries were ruled by brutal military dictatorships. Revolutionaries were active almost everywhere and had even launched a new tactic particularly loathsome to humanity, called “terrorism.”
The United States was also in crisis. National Guard units patrolled the streets of many American cities. There were nightly curfews. Every major university had mass protests against the Vietnam War. Race relations exploded into riots and burned many American cities. There was a generational split on every cultural and political issue — the old didn’t like or trust the young, and the feeling was mutual. Yes, 1968 was a bad year — Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down. A few months later, Robert F. Kennedy was murdered. Even one of the national political conventions erupted into near anarchy.
Yet, none of these man-made troubles are apparent in this stunningly beautiful groundbreaking image. This was the portrait of a seemingly very different world that was taken when Anders lifted a Hasselblad camera loaded with 70 mm film and aimed it at the earth. The audio recording of the conversation between the three astronauts inside the spacecraft reveals just how spontaneous this moment was:
William Anders: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.
Frank Borman: Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled. (joking)
William Anders: (laughs) You got a color film, Jim? Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…
Jim Lovell: Oh man, that’s great!
Here’s another thought: Given these historical firsts, the ironies of what the year 1968 was like, and the accidental occasion to take such an iconic photograph, also consider the actual date this image was taken.
December 24, 1968. Christmas Eve.
Some 240,000 miles away, a billion people were about to celebrate the holiest of holidays. Many of us would later sit down to dinner just hours later with our friends and loved ones (I was 6-years-old at the time). While many of us enjoyed our Christmas feast, three remarkably brave men were so very far away, locked inside a tiny compartment the size of a Volkswagon, circling the moon. The mission set the stage for the first moon landing, some seven months later.
Now, take another look at the photo.
I’m often asked why I believe the way I do. I’m asked what makes me champion the virtues of science and reason, and why I value cooperation over conflict, and why I’m an advocate for human and animal rights, and why I’m an environmentalist, and why I don’t believe in imaginary gods, and why I don’t think national boundaries or borders are a good thing when it comes to being a fully compassionate human, and why I’m convinced we’re all much more interconnected than the wedges of disagreement which divides us.
There is no mine. There is only ours.
Never has one photograph instilled within us such an important task — to save what we see.
Note 1: The Earthrise photo had been preceded by a previous image taken in 1966 by a robotic space probe. However, that image was in black-and-white and didn’t generate nearly the impact.
Note 2: Read more about the marvel of Earthrise here, from the official NASA website.