50 Years Ago...


“All of you on the Good Earth…”

It’s hard to fathom that it was 50 years ago tonight, Christmas Eave, that this photograph was taken by Bill Anders aboard Apollo 8—as human beings circled the moon for the first time. At the height of the Space Race, it was an incredibly bold and stunning move to ride atop the mighty Saturn V rocket, having been fully tested only twice before—both times, un-manned—and having never been flown into deep space—in a last-minute program change to pre-empt a planned lunar mission by the Soviet Union.

Borman, Lovell, and Anders

Commander Frank Borman and crew mates Jim Lovell (of Apollo 13 fame) and Bill Anders (seen below in their Gemini days) had but a few brief months to train for the mission. Although it was a comparatively simple mission—compared to later landing missions—its ten-orbit lunar flight captivated the world.


They were the first three of only 24 men who have ever flown to the moon—with Lovell the only one of the three to ride a later mission. In their television broadcast that Christmas Eve—the most-watched television broadcast at the time—they took turns reading from the Book of Gensis—Chapter 1 versus 1-10, and closed with Borman saying, “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.” Borman and Lovell are now 90 years old—Anders is 85 (see below), and are amongst 11 lunar astronauts who are still alive today.


The Photograph

“Earthrise,” as the photo is titled, has been described as “The most influential environmental photograph ever taken,” and galvanized the growing environmental movement—so much so that, not coincidentally, 16 months later, in April 1970, Earth Day was celebrated for the first time. Curiously, the shot was not anticipated—it was not in the flight plan—and startled Anders (who was assigned to take photographs of the lunar surface) as the Command-and-Service-Module was rotated 180°, pointing back towards earth for the first time (the CSM approached and orbited the moon backwards, as the engine, at the rear of the spacecraft, was fired for several minutes to slow the spacecraft down to be captured into lunar orbit). It is still a breathtaking photograph to this day.

The Saturn V

Although Apollo 8 carried no lunar module, the Saturn V rocket used to carry it out of earth’s orbit (called TLI, or Translunar Injection) was essentially the same rocket used in later lunar missions, and is still, to this day, the most powerful machine ever built. Its first stage, comprised of five Rocketdyne F-1 engines, each capable of 1.5 million pounds of thrust, developed 7.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, and burned two-tons of fuel per second. The rocket and spacecraft was so heavy, and burned so much fuel so quickly, that if one of the engines failed at liftoff, the whole rocked would fall back and be destroyed—but once the rocket cleared the launch tower (something like 12 seconds, and traveling 60 mph), it was light enough to be carried into orbit with the remaining four engines. Here’s a YouTube clip of a documentary, narrated by Gary Sinise, that features Borman and Anders describing their ride aboard the Saturn V: