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William Anders, the man who shot iconic Earthrise pic and changed the way we look at Earth

William Anders, the man who shot iconic Earthrise pic and changed the way we look at Earth
‘Earthrise’, the photograph taken by astronaut William Anders on Apollo 8 while orbiting the moon on 24 December 1968. (Photo: Nasa / Apollo 9 | Converted by Raziel Abulafia | Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Apollo 8 astronaut who took a portrait of the Earth while orbiting the Moon, William Anders, has died aged 90. That photograph reshaped how humans saw their planet.

On 24 December 1968, three astronauts — Air Force Major William Anders, Navy Captain James Lovell and mission commander Air Force Colonel Frank Borman — were seated in the small spacecraft Apollo 8 as it circled the Moon 10 times. They were about 150km above the Moon’s surface and more than 350,000km from their home planet — and they were now the furthest any human had ever been from Earth.

william anders earthrise

Astronaut Major General William Anders arrives at the 6th Annual Living Legends of Aviation Awards ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on 22 January 2009 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo: Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

Back on Earth, amid all the wars, famines, political and social discord, we listened to voices from the vastness of space, relayed to us on terrestrial radios, reciting the opening lines of the first book of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

Within a year, we would be thrilled by men landing upon the Moon’s surface. But, at least for me, those words from Apollo 8, binding together science and faith had a deeper impact. As humans, we now were about to let slip those restraints of gravity that had — from the beginning — bound us to one planet.

After that experience, it seemed inevitable that any moment now, the manned exploration of space would commence in earnest. Science fiction stories and films were about to become reality.

Instead, after just a few trips to the Moon, for at least two generations, it seems almost as if humans increasingly lost interest in journeying outward.

Yes, a growing number of unmanned craft were beginning to explore the other planets of the solar system, and increasingly sophisticated space-based telescopes and related instruments were investigating the distant light and other energy emanating from galaxies — providing data back through to the earliest moments of the creation of the universe and helping revolutionise astrophysics. (Because light takes a finite time to reach us from those distant galaxies, the light we observe now left its source millions or even billions of years earlier.)

Further, those two unmanned craft — Voyager 1 and 2 — launched into space decades earlier, continue to operate and are entering the region of space beyond our solar system. Optimists that humans can be, these craft carry a CD containing images and data explaining where they have come from and who made them. 

Their creators hope that someday, somewhere, aliens may encounter these messages and have the technological and imaginative skills to interpret those messages. And perhaps, they may send us a message in return — even if we may not receive it for millennia to come.

‘Earthrise’

That Christmas Eve broadcast in 1968 happened as the spacecraft’s crew were taking pictures — moving and still — through Apollo 8’s port windows. Some of those images were meant to document potential landing sites for the Apollo 11 craft that would follow.

Perhaps, too, they thought it would be the images of the Moon — ghostly, shades of grey, stark, pockmarked with craters from innumerable meteorite and asteroid strikes — that would elicit wonder among humans. And then those images would help urge greater support and energy for future space exploration.

But something extraordinary happened instead. Anders pointed his still camera towards the lunar horizon line, but he also captured an image of the bright, blue, small circle of planet Earth, streaked with cloud formations, with continents barely visible, in the same picture as the limb of the Moon. The impact of the picture was electric.

William Anders

From left: Journalist in Residence at the Newseum Nick Clooney, Apollo 8 Crew Members Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders listen to questions from the audience during a live taping of a Nasa TV show at the Newseum on 13 November 2008 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Everyone alive now, all persons who have ever been alive, the entirety of human creation and thought have all taken place on that orb. 

At that moment, Anders’ photograph flipped the storyline from looking out to the vastness of outer space, and, instead, to capturing the fragility of Earth and all its denizens, giving a real impetus to a nascent environmental and ecological sensibility and the political and social efforts towards that. It is not too much to say this photograph was also a fundamental element in encouraging broader support for scientific work on climate change 

Anders’ Earthrise photograph was reproduced everywhere, on ubiquitous posters and a very popular postage stamp. It has become one of the most instantly recognisable images of the 20th century — and perhaps it will remain so well into the future. The image, in tandem with another, which the late planet scientist Carl Sagan called “the pale blue dot”, has been burnt into human consciousness.

As Anders said later, “To me, it was strange that we had worked and had come all the way to the Moon to study the Moon, and what we really discovered was the Earth.”

As The Washington Post reported in its obituary for Anders, who died on 7 June in a plane crash at the age of 90, “On Christmas Eve in 1968, the three astronauts on Apollo 8 looked back toward home as their craft made one of its 10 orbits around the moon…. ‘Oh my God! Look at that picture over there,’ said William Anders, an Air Force major on NASA’s first crew to leave the confines of Earth’s orbit. ‘Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.’

“He asked Navy Capt. James A. Lovell Jr. to pass him a roll of color film. ‘Oh man,’ Lovell said, in a conversation captured on the onboard recorder, ‘that’s great.’ The shot taken by Maj. Anders — an image later known as ‘Earthrise’ — became one of the most significant photos of all time: a humbling, awesome and inspirational reminder of humanity’s small and fragile presence in the cosmos.”

Astronaut to ambassador

The astronaut and photographer William Anders was born in Hong Kong, the son of a US Navy lieutenant serving on a gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River in China during a period when the US maintained a small military detachment during China’s warlord era of civil war.

His father was second-in-command of the Panay, the vessel assigned to evacuate Americans in China when the Japanese military increased its conquests of Chinese territory. (The Panay was one of the models for the ship portrayed in the film The Sand Pebbles.) 

Anders graduated from the Naval Academy but switched to the Air Force and received a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, focusing on space radiation, from the Air Force Institute of Technology. A year later, he was an astronaut in training.

Following his round-the-Moon flight, he retired from Nasa and the Air Force and became a civilian executive with the National Aeronautics and Space Council, a presidential advisory unit, and later the US ambassador to Norway. Along the way he also had a stint as CEO of a major aerospace firm. Late in life, he took up racing aircraft.

In an interview with The Guardian, Anders said Earthrise had changed him, too. “It really undercut my religious beliefs. The idea that things rotate around the pope and up there is a big supercomputer wondering whether Billy was a good boy yesterday? It doesn’t make any sense.” Earthrise seems to have guided Anders into becoming a kind of deist.

In a quick, early, prescient observation of what Earthrise would come to mean, the US poet Archibald MacLeish wrote in The New York Times on Christmas Day 1968, “To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold.” DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Reinhard Hartmann says:

    On Amazon Prime there is an incredible documentary called “First to the Moon” about Apollo 8’s journey around the moon & the taking of of the “Earthrise” photograph. It also showcases the gut’s & determination of these astronauts & what it took NASA to eventually put men on the Moon.

    • Dave Reynell says:

      Reinhard, The decision to fly circumlunar on the Apollo 8 flight was made on a hunch that the Soviets were going to beat them to it (Source: Apollo, The Race to the Moon, Charles Murray & Catherine Bly Cox, Simon and Schuster, 1989). It was originally planned to be an Earth orbital flight. Borman, Lovell and Anders were brave men, as were all the Apollo astronauts.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thank you very much for this very thought provoking article. The Earthrise and “Pale Blue Dot” images certainly powerfully capture the sense of our place in the cosmos.

  • Mike Monson says:

    Hopefully that image will help to open the eyes of the climate change denialists and kindle a spark of realisation that sustainable living is an existential imperative.

  • Good article on one of the most amazing
    journeys of human exploration ever.
    The Earthrise photograph is one of the
    most significant images ever taken.
    And you manage to get it wrong
    by reversing it! Eish.

  • Quentin Campbell says:

    Enjoyed this article about the man who took ‘that’ picture.
    Just a correction, the Voyagers did not carry a CD, but 12-inch gold-plated copper discs. I don’t think CD’s were invented yet in 1977.

    • J Brooks Spector says:

      I think we would now call it a CD of a sort, but, yes, in the pure technical sense it was a disc made of copper with the data encoded into its surface. my first cd purchase was in 1983, btw.

  • Gavin Hillyard says:

    All astronauts are brave men. I V salute them all

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