50 Years Ago When the Earth First Rose

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It was the first time I flew in a plane. It was the first time I skipped school. It was the first time we took a “real” family vacation.

It would be the first time we wouldn’t be home for Christmas. It would be the first time we’d be having Christmas with no snow. It would be the first time a young astronomy enthusiast would discover his own Christmas “Stars.”

December 1968. California still had a sparkle of promise. When all those who defined cool were still busying themselves leaving on the last train for the coast.

We weren’t leaving. We were just visiting. Courtesy of American Airlines. The excitement derived from all those firsts overshadowed the fact we wouldn’t be spending the Holy Day with the extended family we grew up with. On the other hand, my father no doubt looked forward to once again celebrating Christmas with his older sister and her family, who moved to California a decade before.

It did snow that Christmas. Southern California was experiencing an unseasonably cold and wet winter. Back then they feared the coming Ice Age. It was a different world.

Speaking of ice and different worlds, we had to abort our attempted climb of the steep slippery slopes of Mt. Palomar to visit the famed observatory on account of lack of tire chains. It was one of the “space” things I most looked forward to. As a consolation, my parents allowed me to buy my first ever book on astronomy in the gift shop at Knott’s Berry Farm.

The book was one of those “pocket-sized” Golden Nature Guides called Stars. Originally written in 1951, I had bought the paperback version that was revised in 1956. Before we even began our space program. The illustrations of the lunar surface looked like the background matte from a 1950s science fiction movie.

We weren’t the only travelers spending time away from home in December of 1968. Our cross-country trip paled in comparison to those who traveled the furthest that Christmas. That honor went to Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders – the crew of Apollo 8 and the first humans to leave Earth orbit and travel to the Moon.

Orbiting the Moon allowed the astronauts to see something no person had ever seen: the far side of the Moon. A phenomenon known as “tidal locking” has placed the Moon in “synchronous rotation” with the Earth. That means the same side of the Moon always faces the Earth. We often see the hemisphere facing away from the Earth referred to as the “dark side” of the Moon.

The “dark side” of the Moon isn’t really always dark. It gets sunlight just like the side that faces us. You can conclude this for yourself if you notice, though the Moon is only partially lit during its phases, the craters are still in the same place. This is why astronomers don’t use the term “dark side.” They call it the “far side.”

From the Earth’s perspective, we see the Moon rising and setting, but always see the same side. We might consider what happens on the Moon “alien.” From the Moon’s perspective, the Earth never moves. It’s always in the same place in the sky, forever staring down.

What this means, therefore, is that the only way to experience an “Earthrise” is while you’re orbiting the Moon. This is precisely what the astronauts on Apollo 8 experienced. Fifty years ago, in 1968, during the afternoon of Christmas Eve Day, as they emerged from the far side of the Moon on their fourth orbit, Bill Anders was the first to notice. “Oh my God!” he exclaimed to his crewmates, “Look at that picture there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.”

Anders took a quick black and white picture. Then, realizing grayscale wouldn’t do what he was seeing justice, asked Jim Lovell for a roll of color film. Once equipped to capture the full spectrum, Anders snapped the now iconic photograph known as “Earthrise.” Wilderness photographer and adventure photojournalist Galen Rowell declared Earthrise “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

Later that evening, as Christmas Eve transformed into Christmas Day across our globe, the three astronauts gave one of their scheduled live television broadcasts. This turned out to be the then most watched television program in history. NASA’s only instructions to the crew: “Say something appropriate.”

The crew wanted to relay both the positives and negatives of their unambiguous solitude. First, they’d relay the antiseptic reality the half billion-person audience would see through the camera lens. Then they’d end on the message of hope their unique perspective enabled them to see. The first part was play-by-play easy. It was the second part that proved the challenge. They considered reading lines from “The Night Before Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” before settling on the perfect verse.

Perhaps in a way to empathize with others who were spending Christmas away from their families, Borman describe the solitude of the landscape around. He said, “The horizon here is very, very stark… the best way to describe this area is a vastness of black and white, absolutely no color… a rather forbidding – foreboding expanse of blackness…” Among other images, the black and white picture of “Earthrise” appeared on the screen.

Transitioning to the encouraging word, Lovell added, “The vast loneliness is awe inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”

Finally, all three astronauts read from Genesis. William Anders introduced this hope that the crew felt when he began: “For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you:

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.

Then Jim Lovell continued:

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”

Finally, Frank Borman ended the scripture reading:

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”

Borman then closed the broadcast with, “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.”

The Apollo 8 TV broadcasts won an Emmy. Time Magazine named Borman, Anders, and Lovell the Men of the Year for 1968.

But the best was saved for Earthrise. The following year it because a U.S. Postage stamp with the golden lettered phrase “In the beginning God…” placed in the blackness between the Earth and the Moon’s surface. Finally, Life named Earthrise one of the “100 photographs that changed the world.”

Fifty years later, December of 1968 remains a remarkable legacy for all mankind.

And perhaps, too, for one little boy who, on his family’s return from the Golden State, for the first time slept in an airport when a powerful snowstorm grounded all flights in Chicago.

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Are you interested in learning a little-known fact about “Earthrise”? Click here to read “Apollo 8: Earthrise.”

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