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Starts With A Bang

RIP Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, who rediscovered Earth

In December 1968, human beings made their first-ever journey to the Moon aboard Apollo 8. Their most important discovery? Planet Earth.
This NASA portrait of Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders (left) is shown alongside the most iconic photograph from that mission: Earthrise (right), shown in its original orientation as captured.
Credit: NASA/public domain
Key Takeaways
  • On December 21, 1968, humanity took its first journey beyond the bounds of Earth’s gravitational pull, when Apollo 8 and its three-person crew took off for a 6-day journey to the Moon.
  • Orbiting the Moon 10 times, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders took a total of 862 photos, but the most important one of all wasn’t simply of the Moon, but rather showed the Earth emerging from over the lunar limb.
  • The iconic photo, simply known as “Earthrise,” was arguably the most important photo ever taken from space. The person who took that photo, Bill Anders, died in a plane crash at age 90 on June 7, 2024.

In 1957, the launch of Sputnik began the “space race.”

A man in a white coat inspects the spherical satellite, Sputnik 1, which is mounted on a stand and visible with long antennas extending from its body. As he examines the iconic spacecraft, one can't help but think of Bill Anders capturing Earth from Apollo 8.
A technician working on Sputnik 1, prior to its launch on October 4, 1957. After a mere 3 months in space, Sputnik 1 fell back to Earth due to atmospheric drag, a problem that plagues all low-Earth-orbiting satellites even today.
Credit: NASA/Asif A. Siddiqi

Subsequently, the USA and USSR raced to put humans on the Moon.

This photograph shows USSR space program Chief Designer Sergei Korolev wishing cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin good luck prior to becoming the first human in space, which he achieved on April 12, 1961. American Alan Shepard would become the first American in space shortly thereafter: May 5, 1961.
Credit: RIA Novosti

Many sacrificed their lives in pursuit of this goal.

T-38 Talon over Edwards Air Force Base
First flown in 1959, the T-38 Talon has been a workhorse aircraft for training space pilots for over 60 years, although a number of training accidents in the 1960s claimed the lives of several early astronauts before humanity ever ventured to the Moon. Theodore Freeman, Charles Bassett, Elliot See, and Clifton Williams all died in training accidents using this plane from 1964–1967.
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

T-38 Talon training accidents killed four early astronauts.

Apollo 1 astronauts AMS
Apollo 1 astronauts Roger Chaffee (left), Ed White (center), and Gus Grissom (right) inside the Apollo Mission Simulator (AMS) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 1967. This photo, taken in January of 1967, was supposed to be in preparation for the first successful launch of the Apollo era. Instead, a fire during a subsequent test set the Apollo program back by nearly a full calendar year, killing all three astronauts over a span of just 26 seconds.
Credit: NASA

The tragic Apollo 1 launchpad fire killed three more.

A spacecraft orbits above the Earth, with the planet's surface partially covered by clouds against the dark backdrop of space, reminiscent of Bill Anders' iconic Earth photographs.
It wasn’t until 20 months after the Apollo 1 fire that the first Apollo astronauts would launch into space aboard Apollo 7: Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walt Cunningham. Apollo 7 was a low-Earth orbiting mission, and never escaped from Earth’s gravity.
Credit: NASA/Apollo 7

All subsequent NASA missions remained uncrewed until Apollo 7.

This photograph from December 21, 1968, shows the launch of Apollo 8 from the launchpad at Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) in Florida. Bill Anders, on board, described the event by saying, “You could see the flames and the outer skin of the spacecraft glowing; and burning, baseball-size chunks flying off behind us. It was an eerie feeling, like being a gnat inside a blowtorch flame.”
Credit: NASA

Finally, Apollo 8 launched Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Commander Frank Borman moonward.

This image of the Moon was taken by the crew of Apollo 8 while they were approaching the Moon from Earth. The journey to the Moon, to orbit it ten times, and to return back to Earth took only six days.
Credit: NASA/Apollo 8

They became the first humans to escape Earth’s gravitational pull.

This poster illustrates the Apollo mission trajectories, made possible by the Moon’s close proximity to us. Newton’s law of universal gravitation, despite the fact that it’s been superseded by Einstein’s general relativity, is still so good at being approximately true on most Solar System scales that it encapsulates all the physics we need to travel from Earth to the Moon, orbit it, land on its surface (if we desire), and return. Isaac Newton did, indeed, do most of the driving.
Credit: NASA

Bill Anders had many famous quips, including, “I think Isaac Newton is doing most of the driving now.”

Apollo 8 astronauts were the first humans to reach great enough distances from our planet to be able to view the entire Earth at once. Here, the closest (left) and farthest (right) images of the Earth are shown as acquired with the same Hasselblad camera.
Credit: NASA/Apollo 8/Johnson Space Center

They are, to date, the first of 24 astronauts to journey to the Moon.

This Apollo 8 view of the lunar surface looks southward at 162 degrees west longitude, showing rugged terrain that is characteristic of the lunar far side hemisphere. The heavily cratered features, including many craters-within-craters, shows its age, while the lack of maria reveals a greater crustal thickness than the near side. It marked the first time that the Moon’s far side was ever seen with human eyes.
Credit: NASA/Apollo 8

Orbiting the Moon ten times before returning, they captured 862 photos total.

Many of the most detail-rich photos of the Moon taken by Apollo astronauts were acquired when the Sun was close to the lunar horizon from the point of view of the astronauts, as it allowed for long shadows and lots of visible relief along the Moon’s heavily cratered surface.
Credit: NASA/Apollo 8

Most photos were of the lunar surface, including many in unprecedented detail.

A view that eluded human eyes until Apollo 8 was that of flying over the sun-lit lunar surface and looking at the edge, or limb, of the Moon. While in direct overhead sunlight, even the hilly and heavily cratered terrain of the Moon appears relatively featureless and washed out.
Credit: NASA/Apollo 8

But the most iconic and impactful photograph of all, taken by Bill Anders, highlighted something greater: Earthrise.

The first photo of “Earthrise” was taken with a black-and-white camera. While iconic, a second photograph taken shortly thereafter, with a color camera, is possibly the most circulated photograph ever taken of planet Earth.
Credit: NASA/Apollo 8/Project Apollo Archive

Anders poetically noted, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

apollo 8 earthrise
This photograph shows the first view, with human eyes, of the Earth rising over the limb of the Moon, taken mere minutes after the original Earthrise photo (in black-and-white) was snapped. The discovery of the Earth from space, with human eyes, remains one of the most iconic achievements in our species’ history. Apollo 8, which occurred during December of 1968, was one of the essential precursor missions to a successful Moon landing. This photo is arguably the most environmentally impactful one ever taken.
Credit: NASA/Apollo 8

It was Anders’ only voyage to space.

The Apollo 8 prime crew, Commander Frank Borman (left), Jim Lovell (center), and Bill Anders (right), in front of the Saturn V stack and its mobile launch tower on October 9, 1968. Two months later, they would successfully launch and reach the Moon: a first for humanity.
Credit: NASA

Anders perished on June 7, 2024 in a plane crash.

Bill Anders, at left, gets playfully sprayed with a hose by his son Greg Anders in this 2008 photo. Bill Anders remained an active pilot throughout his life, as this late-in-life (taken in 2008) photograph helps illustrate.
Credit: Senior Airman Jacqueline Hawkins/US Air Force

Only six Apollo astronauts presently remain living.

This December 10, 2008 photo shows all three Apollo 8 astronauts together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8. As of June 9, 2024, only Jim Lovell still lives, one of the last six Apollo-era astronauts remaining, along with Fred Haise, Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt, Charles Duke, David Scott, and Buzz Aldrin.
Credit: Chris Radcliff/Wikimedia Commons

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words.


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