Astronaut Bill Anders dutifully photographed every aspect of the stark lunar surface unfolding before him as the Apollo 8 command module orbited the moon on the morning of Christmas Eve 1968, when — what to his wondering eye should appear — a vibrant blue and white glowing planet Earth.
It was about 10:30 a.m., Eastern Time, and Anders’ surprise was palpable on the mission flight recording.
“Oh my God! Look at that picture over there. There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty,” Anders said, prompting Flight Commander Frank Borman to joke, “Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.”
The already historic mission — the first manned flight to escape earth’s orbit and travel almost 240,000 miles to the moon — was about to take on mythic proportions. Anders, the three-man crew’s junior member and a major general in the Air Force — grasped his Hasselblad 500 EL camera and exposed a single frame on the black-and-white film inside. He then called out to Command Module pilot Jim Lovell to “quickly” hand him a roll of color film.
Working in the weightlessness of the cramped cabin, Anders hurriedly loaded the roll of color film and made more exposures. Fifty years later, the color image dubbed “Earthrise” remains at the center of Anders’ and the Apollo 8 mission’s legacy. Within NASA’s substantial catalog of images, its official designation is AS08-13-2329.
In an exclusive phone interview with the Bristol Herald Courier, Anders — now 85 and living on the West Coast — reflected on the mission and the image termed the “most iconic image of the 20th century” and among the most significant ever taken.
“I guess what impressed me the most [about the flight] was being in the lucky position to take the first Earthrise picture,” Anders said. “I didn’t realize, at the time, how iconic that would be, but that picture has become a serious, emotional event. Not just for me, but for those trying to protect our delicate planet and trying to keep our position in the universe in perspective. To have the honor of being able to take that picture — certainly, I’m not a particularly good photographer — but sometimes, just being in the right place at the right time pays off.”
Ironically, Anders said he actually prefers another image showing the entire Earth against the blackness of space.
“My favorite picture, more so than Earthrise was showing this glorious orb that we live on. As we got out to lunar distance, it looked about like the size of your fist at arm’s length,” he said. “I imagine at 10 arms’ length it would look about the size of a BB and 100 arms’ length you could hardly see it. A hundred arms’ length is like going nowhere in space, so when I hear about people going to Mars, that’s a long ways out there. Just getting to the moon is tough — even today.”
In previous interviews, Anders described the Earthrise image as traveling to the moon to “discover” earth.
Anders was designated the mission’s Lunar Module Pilot, but that particular piece of technology wouldn’t be ready when Apollo 8 launched on Dec. 21. So, Anders was responsible for photographing the lunar surface from an elliptical orbit ranging from 69 to 195 miles from the surface — hoping to help planners on the ground identify possible landing sites for future Apollo missions.
“We’d been in lunar orbit — three orbits — but we were going backwards and upside down, so we were focused on the lunar surface. It wasn’t until the third or fourth orbit we had to change our orbit and reposition the spacecraft,” Anders said. “It was in that repositioning when I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of something out there and quickly looked over, there was this gorgeous sight. I grabbed a camera and started taking pictures. Frank Borman jokingly said that I shouldn’t do that; it wasn’t on the flight plan.”
Anders worked quickly to capture the moment but, in the pre-digital era, it would be days before they returned to Earth and NASA technicians developed the film.
“It was a scramble for cameras and film. Fortunately, I had brought along a 250 millimeter long lens. Frank Borman had fought it. He thought I would bang it into a panel and break something. I had a camera, was lucky enough to have that lens and the color film,” he said. “When we got back and all the pictures were developed, it was clear when NASA picked the picture for the stamp to honor our flight, I took it and became a famous photographer with no photographic training — overnight. That was a real thrill, and I’m proud of that picture.”
Back on Earth, the image appeared on magazine covers, served as a backdrop image for CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite’s nightly broadcasts and is credited with helping spark a much greater awareness of the Earth and its environment. Noted photographer Galen Rowell described it as the “most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”
In 1969, it appeared on a 6-cent stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service.
Anders said the moon was “pretty boring” after three trips around it — including the first look at its dark side.
“It [moon] was so beat up. It looked like a battlefield, so to see our home planet against the stark lunar horizon and backdropped by the velvet blackness of space was just a combination that really caught on — not only with me instantaneously — but eventually with the rest of the world,” Anders said.
Despite all the attention the photo received, Anders said it was only recently that he fully appreciated its impact.
“We’re fighter pilots, not poets or photographers or artists. It was spectacular. Even fighter pilots have a little heart,” he said. “It never sunk in at the time. It was only more recently, when the International Astronomical Union — which is responsible for naming features on the lunar surface — their special lunar surface committee was so impressed by that picture — that they just recently designated another crater in the honor of Earthrise. They couldn’t name it after me; I already had one named on the backside of the moon as a member of the Apollo 8 crew, so they called it Anders’ Earthrise honoring the event. That’s when it really sunk in that the Earthrise picture was a big deal.”
Twin City dentist Dr. Bill Hartel — a longtime friend of Anders and avowed “space geek” — is currently working with U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, to get Congress to formally designate Dec. 24 as Earthrise Day.
As 1968 ended, the Apollo 8 mission provided the nation some momentary respite after a year rocked by an unpopular war in Southeast Asia, racial turmoil, protests in the streets, a tense presidential election and the assassinations of presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Fifty years later, Anders — who viewed the Earth’s relative insignificance against the vastness of space — frets that people on Earth aren’t getting along any better now than then.
“That’s our home planet. I thought to myself, it’s too bad you can’t get everybody in the United Nations up here to look down at this thing, because we’re throwing rocks and shooting rockets at each other,” Anders said of his impressions while in space. “Indeed, I think it’s gotten worse. People are willing to use their kids, blow themselves up and blow the kids up — that’s a hard thing to deal with. I think things have gotten worse, but the environmental movement has gotten better, but humankind is behaving with even worse manners than during our flight.”
Some seven months after Apollo 8, Apollo 11, piloted by Neil Armstrong, successfully landed on the moon. Both flights were seminal moments in U.S. history, particularly in the space race with Cold War rival Russia. The race began in 1957, when the Russians successfully launched the Sputnik I satellite into earth’s orbit using a rocket engine capable of delivering a thermonuclear warhead to U.S. soil.
In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy urged Congress to support a goal of landing an American on the moon and safely returning him to earth by the end of that decade — an effort that would cost billions of dollars requiring massive tax increases.
“Those of us who were alive and in the military at that time dedicated our lives to keeping the communists at bay. Having the chance to do Apollo, which was kind of the big spike in the communistic coffin, was a real honor for me. The Apollo 8 flight was extremely risky, and I thought that risk was worth taking,” Anders recalled.
Violent launch, landing
It was a bit of government intelligence regarding the Russian space program that prompted NASA officials to drastically alter the Apollo 8 mission — from earth orbit experiments to flying to and orbiting the moon. That decision came just four months before an advanced December 1968 launch.
Weeks after that change, Russia successfully sent an unmanned craft into lunar orbit and brought it back to Earth in September 1968.
There was no shortage of risks, but it was “an important mission” for the country, Anders said.
“It was the first time humans ever left Earth orbit going to the nearest neighbor in the solar system, first flight on the giant Saturn V rocket and first time [we] went into orbit around the nearest heavenly body,” Anders said. “That particular maneuver [lunar orbit] was the toughest and trickiest one for the whole Apollo program. Once we were assured that could be done, it wasn’t necessarily an easy step for Apollo 11 to land on the moon, but at least it made it a lot easier for them.”
The Saturn V rocket that would push Apollo 8 beyond earth’s atmosphere was a massive, imposing structure standing 360 feet, 33 feet in diameter, weighing 6.5 million pounds and carrying a payload of more than 300,000 pounds of rocket fuel. Anders said its 7.5 million pounds of thrust was comparable to a small atomic bomb.
“I had concerns about Saturn. It really hadn’t been tested before. One of the prior tests had shown some bad signs,” Anders said. “My job was to understand how the command and service module worked, and I focused on that and my Navy and airplane and engineering background made it so I was good at analyzing systems. Frank Borman had investigated the Apollo 1 fire and signed off on that. He also was specialist in the Saturn V. I figured if it’s OK with Frank and the people I had confidence in, it was OK with me.”
But, Anders admitted, those moments when the engines fired and they began lifting off, really got his attention.
“It was only during the launch when I was surprised by the violence of the beast and the noise that I thought ‘what the heck is going on here.’ We had simulated every possible anomaly we could think of, but we really hadn’t simulated the launch very well. I’m thinking to myself, here we are the very first part of this mission, and it felt like — to me — it was going wrong. I had the feeling the fins were bouncing off the steel of the girder. It was just the violence of those big F-1 engines thrashing down there and keeping us pointed forward,” he said. “Once we cleared the tower and got away from the reflected noise of the ground, it steadied out, and it behaved beautifully.”
Ironically, re-entry to Earth’s orbit and their splashdown in the northern Pacific Ocean on Dec. 27 were also unpleasant.
“I’d asked Frank Borman earlier, ‘What was the best part of his flight?’ And he said, ‘Stepping onto the carrier [U.S.S. Yorktown].’ And I must say after going around the moon, the night re-entry where we couldn’t see our parachutes or if we even had any and a violent splashdown on the ocean — we must have hit a wave coming up as we were going down. We did a real belly buster. The spacecraft flipped over; we were upside down with all the trash in the spacecraft landed into our faces. One of the crew had been sick, so the spacecraft was kind of like living in an outhouse that had been turned upside down during flight. He [Borman] was right. When we stepped on that carrier, my guess is we got it made. It was great to get home and see the family,” Anders said.
The Apollo 8 flight crew members were named Time Magazine’s “Men of the Year.” While Borman and Lovell remained in the astronaut program, Anders decided to leave the following year. He went to work in the Nixon administration as executive secretary for the National Aeronautics and Space Council.
“I’ve been very lucky being chosen for Apollo 8, but I was very disappointed, though, when they took my lunar module away. It was clear to me, a junior guy who’d been trained as a lunar module pilot that — without a lunar module — it would be quite a few Apollo flights before I ever got to the moon,” Anders said.
He later served on the Atomic Energy Commission, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and as U.S. ambassador to Norway before entering the private sector.
“That forced me to get a real job, where most of my colleagues stayed to have great missions on Apollo and Skylab and, later, the shuttle. Most of that ended up successfully, and I ended up as chairman of General Dynamics which, I think for three years, was voted the top stock of Wall Street from the shareholders’ point of view. I made a lot of money for my shareholders and a little money for myself and can enjoy life almost more than all my colleagues,” he recalled.
Hollywood borrowed a moment from Anders’ career as a pilot. In a scene from the 1986 film “Top Gun,” Tom Cruise flies inverted to photograph a Russian fighter pilot and displays his middle finger.
“We were fighter pilots used to being chased around by our enemies,” he said. “I came alongside — over the north seas of Iceland — getting the numbers of Soviet bombers. I actually gave one of them the bird. It wasn’t Tom Cruise.”
The Apollo 8 mission is the subject of a new documentary entitled “First to the Moon” and has been documented in other films and books. An HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” aired in 1999. “Earthrise: The First Lunar Voyage” is now airing on Amazon Prime Video. This past summer, the crew reunited at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, which contains the command module from their mission.
In the beginning
The other moment that Apollo 8 will always be remembered for was a Christmas Eve Bible reading of the first 10 verses of Genesis during a TV and radio broadcast seen or heard by billions across the planet, Anders said.
That poignant moment was left up to the crew and never rehearsed, he added.
“NASA spoke to Frank Borman to say something meaningful, and they didn’t bug him. So, Frank asked some friends, one of whom asked his wife — who suggested a primal message. For many cultures in the Christian community and Judaic community have basically the Genesis story, every religion has a similar one,” Anders said. “We never practiced in the simulator so when I started reading — followed by Lovell and Borman — it really caught the people on the ground and around the rest of the world by surprise.”
Making that kind of decision today, Anders said, would be much more complex.
The audio of those moments reveals the crew members added their own message to listeners.
“We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you,” Anders said as documented by the flight recording. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”
After Anders completed reading the first four verses, Lovell read the next four verses followed by mission Commander Borman, who read verses nine and 10 then concluded, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas — and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
There was a brief silence — NASA’s Mission Control said nothing — and then the broadcast shut off.
“It’s interesting that, in those days, NASA could actually leave something like that up to the crew. Now they’d have to have 20 committees and review it and ask Congress. So, it couldn’t be done today,” Anders said. “It was done then, and I think Frank made a brilliant choice of that flight. The reading of Genesis in lunar orbit over the Christmas-Judaic holidays — along with the Earthrise picture — I think will be what’s remembered by historians a hundred years from now as a major legacy of the space program.”