Science & Technology

The most important picture ever taken is 50 years old

And on Christmas Eve, as the Apollo 8 command module came around the far side of the moon and regained a view of Earth on the horizon, he did something that was absolutely not in NASA’s plans: He stopped taking pictures of possible lunar landing sites and instead took pictures of the Earth. One of them was this picture, the picture.

Above the barren, lifeless gray planes of the moon rises a world that is so, so different. Blue with water, white with swirling clouds, carrying continents like rafts in a boundless sea. Even from a quarter-million miles away, the land is delicately colored by the evidence of life. The sun reflects off the water and ice. It’s a glistening world, a jewel unlike anything we see when we turn telescopes to the heavens or send probes out into the solar system.

You live there. So do your family and your friends. Every teacher you had in school, every kid who ever joined you in a game. They’re there. Every person who ever drove past you in a gleaming car, and every homeless person who ever held out to you a battered cup lives there. Every president. Every coal miner. Every king. Every slave. Every religious leader. Every whale, dolphin, mountain gorilla, giant panda, dog, cat, and mouse lives there. They only live there. And none of them have ever, ever, ever lived anywhere else. 

The image came to be known as “Earthrise,” though there is no actual Earthrise if you’re standing on the moon. The moon keeps a single face turned toward Earth, its rotation synchronized by billions of years of tidal action working between the two orbs. If you were standing on the moon at a spot where you could see the Earth, you would always be able to see the Earth. Day would come, and night, but the Earth would be always in the sky.  And if you were standing in a place where you could not see the Earth, you could stand there forever and never see that blue, blue world come above the edge of its dead neighbor.

For fifty years, Earthrise has reminded us that this is a unique place. So far as we know, this is the only place in the universe where anyone, or anything, looks up with wonder. So far as we know, this is the only place in all the universe where there is life.

Maybe it seems as if knowing that — as if seeing it — hasn’t made a difference.

But maybe it has. Maybe it has made more difference than we know. Bill Anders lifted his camera and took a family photo of every family, across every time. Fifty years later, we’re here to see it, and that was far from a guaranteed outcome.

Life is a transient phenomenon. That’s certainly true for us as individuals. It’s also true for the life of our planet. One day it will be gone. But maybe someone, somewhere will look back on that family photo and remember a place and a time and a world teeming with life and possibility.

The astronauts on board Apollo 8 did another thing that surprised NASA as they looked back on Earth. They began to read the opening passages of Genesis. That may seem like an odd thing for men who certainly didn’t think the planet was only a few thousand years old, who were hurtling through space, farther away from home than any humans had ever been. But the impact of what they were seeing, the power of this vision, demanded something more than ordinary words.

It was Anders who read the opening passage.

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.

There it is. At the top of Earthrise. The light that is our home. It’s still good. And can be good. But the darkness is all around, and holding it back requires work.

The full-frame image of Earthrise is available in high resolution from NASA.

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