“The vast loneliness up here of the Moon is awe inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth. The Earth from here is a grand oasis to the big vastness of space.” — Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell
The iconic photos on this page are not new, but their message never gets old. Fifty years ago this week, three men traveled farther from home than any explorer had ever wandered. And like any travelers, their thoughts occasionally wandered back to their precious home.
The black-and-white photograph shows the Earth rising over a horizontal surface on December 24, 1968, as the Apollo 8 crew orbited the Moon. The spacecraft was near 110 degrees east lunar longitude, with the horizon stretching about 570 kilometers (250 miles) ahead.
The color photograph below, shot the same day by William Anders, is presented here in the manner in which he saw his home planet rising before him—in the vertical plane. On the Earth, the sunset terminator crosses Africa, and Antarctica is the white area near the left end of the terminator. North and South America are under clouds.
Shortly before he took the unplanned photo, Anders exclaimed: “Oh my God, look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty!”
While orbiting the Moon on Christmas Eve 1968, the astronauts broadcast directly to the people on Earth; it was the largest television audience in history (to that point), estimated at half a billion people. The three former pilots gave some impressions from the greatest test flight of their lives.
Just before Lovell offered his wistful thoughts about Earth, Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman remarked on the rocky satellite right below him: “The Moon is a different thing to each one of us. I think that each one of us—each one carries his own impression of what he’s seen today. I know my own impression is that it’s a vast, lonely forbidding type existence, great expanse of nothing, that looks rather like clouds and clouds of pumice stone, and it certainly would not appear to be a very inviting place to live or work.”
“We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice,” Borman said in a 2008 Apollo anniversary event. “And the only instructions that we got from NASA was to do something appropriate.”
They finished their broadcast with this message. William Anders speaks first, then Jim Lovell, and then Frank Borman.
The next day, the Apollo 8 crew had to burn their engines enough to leave lunar orbit and head for home. As mission controllers waited, Lovell confirmed the successful firing that would carry the crew home by December 27: “Please be informed there is a Santa Claus.”
Editor’s note: You can enjoy many other long-distance astronaut and spacecraft images of our home planet in our new Earth from Afar gallery.
Story by Michael Carlowicz.