You're reading

2,383: Earthrise image number

Christmas Eve 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders – were about to get their first glimpse of the far side of the Moon.

“We fired the spacecraft engine something like four minutes to slow down enough to get into lunar orbit,” says Borman. “We’re about halfway through when we looked down and there was the Moon.”

“The lunar surface was terribly distressed with meteorites, holes, craters, volcanic residue,” he says. “But one of the things that struck me was there's absolutely no colour, it was either grey or black or white.”

“It was a very interesting first view of a different world.”

But the most captivating view came as they swung back around on the fourth orbit and Anders spotted the Earth in the command module window.

You might also like:

“Oh my God, look at that picture over there! There's the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!” he exclaimed. “You got a colour film, Jim? Hand me a roll of colour, quick, would you?”

These cartridges containing reels of 70mm film could be easily swapped on the crew’s Hasselblad cameras.

“Take several, take several of them,” said Lovell. “Here, give it to me!”

Apollo 8's crew saw the Earth as no human had ever seen it before - and the Earthrise image has become a classic of photography (Credit: Nasa)

“Wait a minute, just let me get the right setting here now,” replied Anders, “just calm down…”

Once the film was developed back on Earth several weeks later, Nasa image 2383 (and the frames either side) would become one of the most famous pictures of all time.

The picture, showing the Earth in the context of the barren Moon, was one of the unexpected achievements of the Apollo programme.

The Earth was the only thing in the entire universe that had any colour – a beautiful sight, we're very fortunate to live on this planet – Frank Borman

“I think it's probably one of the more significant pictures that humans have ever taken,” agrees Borman. “The Earth was the only thing in the entire universe that had any colour – a beautiful sight, we're very fortunate to live on this planet.”

(You can hear more about the Apollo 8 mission in this radio programme)  

75: Minutes of Emmy award-winning TV broadcasts from space (Apollo 7)

In the run-up to the Apollo missions, there was tremendous resistance among many Nasa engineers and astronauts to the idea of carrying TV cameras for live broadcasts from space. It was frivolous and would interfere with the mission, they argued.

The formidable head of mission control, Chris Kraft, thought otherwise and insisted that TV was a way of showing American taxpayers how their money was being spent.

We floated around and just showed the ground what we could do – it was not good photography – Walt Cunningham

The first astronauts to carry a TV camera into orbit were the crew of Apollo 7 – Wally Schirra, Don Eisele and Walt Cunningham. After a shaky start, they soon got the hang of adding a little showbiz to the space programme.

“We called it the Wally, Walt and Don show,” says Cunningham. “We had a friend that gave us some little cards that we could hold up in front of the television and other than that we floated around and just showed the ground what we could do – it was not good photography.”

Despite their shortcomings, these first TV broadcasts from space – a total of seven – nonetheless won an enthusiastic global following. They gave the missions an immediacy that wasn’t possible with film or photography.

The astronauts' images helped give us a new view of our planet (Credit: Nasa/Getty Images)

I can remember on 7 being fascinated with the onboard television,” says Apollo flight director Gerry Griffin. “But it didn't take long for me to realise that we're going to have to work on this, because you can't just point [the camera] at things and not have much to say.”

When the Apollo 7 crew returned to Earth, they were rewarded with an Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for their efforts.

Later missions would push the boundaries of TV technology, with improved cameras, transmitters and content. Apollo 8 broadcast live from lunar orbit for the first time and, during Apollo 10, the crew produced the first colour TV shows from the Moon.

64: Diameter of the Parkes radio telescope, in metres

Broadcasting from the relatively bright and controlled conditions of the Apollo spacecraft was very different from transmitting the first images from the surface of another world. But Nasa realised it was essential to broadcast mankind’s first footsteps on the Moon.

The video camera built for the lunar surface was based on military technology developed for filming at night in the jungles of Vietnam. It was mounted in a compartment on the side of the lunar lander that held the surface experiments. Armstrong opened the door of the compartment when he emerged from the hatch and began descending the ladder. The astronaut later removed the camera and positioned it on a tripod.

The astronauts may have been on the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon, but it was the ocean of storms here - John Sarkissian

Nasa wasn’t taking any risks with ensuring the live video reached the Earth and arranged for the transmissions to be received by 64-metre wide dishes in Goldstone, California and at Parkes in New South Wales, Australia.

Engineers at Parkes spent months working with Nasa to prepare the giant radio telescope to receive the first TV pictures from the lunar surface. On the 21 July 1969, everything was ready for the big event but then the weather suddenly changed.

“Just minutes before the Moonwalk was due to begin, a violent squall hit the telescope with winds that were over the safe operating speeds,” says Parkes operations scientist John Sarkissian. “But John Bolton, the legendary first director of the observatory, held his nerve, told his men to stay on it and, just as they switched on the TV camera, the Moon moved into the field of view and we received the pictures.”

The Parkes space telescope proved invaluable in beaming the Moon footage to a waiting world (Credit: Getty Images)

“The astronauts may have been on the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon,” says Sarkissian, “but it was the ocean of storms here.”

One disappointment was that the first TV coverage from the Moon wasn’t in colour. That was scheduled to take place during Apollo 12. Unfortunately, when astronaut Alan Bean was setting up the camera on the lunar surface, he accidentally pointed it at the Sun and fried the electronics.

During the later Apollo missions, a TV camera was fixed to the lunar rover to give viewers a drivers-eye view of the Moon. The camera was remote-controlled from Earth, which also enabled operators to capture one of the coolest shots in TV history. As Apollo 17 blasts-off from the Moon, the camera tilts to follow its trajectory (You can watch the video here.)

Read more about Parkes here

600 million: Estimated global TV audience (Apollo 11)

Around 600 million people watched as Neil Armstrong took his first tentative small step on the lunar surface. At that time, it was the world’s largest-ever TV audience.

But by the time of Apollo 13, just nine months later, the world had already lost interest. As Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise travelled to the Moon, none of the national US TV networks carried their broadcast.

“It was the third time we were going to land on the Moon and the news media didn't care,” says Sy Liebergot, who was responsible for all the critical life support systems on the Apollo 13 spacecraft.

Apollo was once again a global news event, with millions following the dramatic rescue of the mission, an early example of rolling news coverage

“They figured we'd landed twice and they decided on their own the public was not interested anymore in us going and landing on the Moon.”

“There was nothing ordinary about going to the Moon, landing and on it, taking off and coming home,” says Liebergot. “But they didn't care.”

A few minutes after the Apollo 13 broadcast ended, the TV networks changed their mind. Fifty five hours and 46 minutes into the flight, mission controllers asked the crew to stir the oxygen and hydrogen in the tanks supplying the fuel cells for the spacecraft. The routine procedure ensured the liquid in the vessels was properly mixed and the gauges gave accurate readings.

Even the early stages of the mission provided photo-worthy moments, like the stages of the Saturn V rocket falling away (Credit: Nasa/Getty Images)

“Houston we’ve had a problem,” reported Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell.

With the side blown off the side of the spacecraft and the crew in mortal danger, Apollo was once again a global news event, with millions following the dramatic rescue of the mission, an early example of rolling news coverage.

28,000: Distance the Blue Marble image taken from, in miles

During the five-year Apollo programme, television coverage went from shaky and improvised black-and-white home movies to choreographed colour panoramas of the lunar landscape. But compared to today’s high-definition TV, much of it looks grainy and dated.

The most enduring imagery of Apollo comes from film – looking as fresh today as when it was shot. Archive includes spectacular widescreen 70mm footage of the Saturn V rolling to the launch pad and candid 16mm documentary shots of mission control. Film cameras were even mounted in the rockets and ejected to fall to Earth in canisters.

The Earthrise image captured by Bill Anders during Apollo 8, was a lucky accident. But another Earth image was planned in meticulous detail

Some of the best of this film footage has been used to stunning effect in the recently released Apollo 11 movie.

Likewise, the still images brought back by Apollo astronauts are still crisp, inspiring and relevant today. And it’s two images of the Earth that stand out.

The Earthrise image captured by Bill Anders during Apollo 8, was a lucky accident. But another Earth image was planned in meticulous detail.

The Blue Marble image has become one of the most iconic images taken by Apollo astronauts (Credit: Nasa)

As the Apollo 17 crew headed to the Moon for the final time in 1972, they were instructed to take a picture looking back at the Earth. The image – known as the Blue Marble – gives a unique perspective of the whole Earth hanging in the blackness of space. Not only does it show the South Pole but it puts Africa – not the USA – at the centre.

Even when we return to the Moon, these first images – particularly those of Earth – will have a special place in the history of humankind.  

In the words of Apollo 8 commander, Frank Borman: “I don't think any of us paid any attention to the fact that we would be going all the way to the Moon and be more interested in looking at the Earth.”


Join more than one million Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday. 

Around the bbc