The Influential Material Memory of the Apollo 8 Mission

There’s no denying that 1968 was among the most eventful and tumultuous years in the history of the United States. Throughout the course of the hectic year that it was, American citizens were subjected to countless distressing events and stories in the news, from the assassinations of progressive leaders to the US sinking further and further into the seemingly endless conflict that was the Vietnam War. However, this chaotic year ended on a hopeful note for America, as on December 24th, viewers around the world watched on television as Apollo 8 became the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth’s orbit.

The Apollo 8 crew just prior to departure. From left: Commander Frank Borman, Lunar Module Pilot William Anders, and Command Module Pilot James Lovell.

The Saturn V rocket launched from Cape Kennedy (now known as Cape Canaveral) on Dec. 21, 1968, positioning astronauts James Lovell Jr., Frank Borman, and William Anders into a 114 by 118 mile parking orbit at 32.6 degrees. [1] The second manned mission in the Apollo program, this venture seeked to send these brave astronauts into the moon’s orbit, where their ship would circle the moon 10 times, conducting experiments and research before returning to Earth. This mission was intended to test equipment and gain operational experience in preparation for a potential moon landing, which would ultimately occur 6 months later in 1969. The mission turned out to be a success, igniting a spark of hope for the future for the downcast country. As it was a moment of triumph in a year of great mayhem, the Apollo 8 mission was immortalized in many ways that have impacted the cultural memory of the event.

An RCA consumer ad from the years following the Apollo mission, advertising the use of an RCA camera by the crew during their live TV broadcasts, including the famous Christmas Eve message.

Per the request of NASA and various telecommunications experts, the Apollo 8 crew brought with them a television camera, with which they conducted six live broadcasts, seen by hundreds of millions of people around the globe. In a prime time TV spot on Christmas Eve, the most famous of these broadcasts was delivered. Speaking directly to the American people as they orbited the moon, the three astronauts on board recited passages from the Book of Genesis in what was at the time the most watched segment in the history of television with more than a billion viewers. [2] This unprecedented feat allowed citizens to keep up with the mission in real time, and has also impacted the way in which this mission has been remembered by the general populous. This broadcast represents the ways in which collective memory can be partial, as it has remained one of the most remembered aspects of the Apollo 8 mission while the scientific achievement and importance to the Space Race itself are often forgotten.

Another source of material memory, a US postage stamp featuring both the Earthrise photograph and a callback to the Christmas Eve broadcast of the Apollo crew reciting the Book of Genesis

On that very same day, the most iconic piece of material memory from the mission was created. As the ship took its fourth orbit around the moon, astronaut Bill Anders captured an unscheduled picture of the Earth rising above the moon’s surface that would become one of the most famous photographs in history. Aptly dubbed ‘Earthrise,’ the shot was the first picture of the earth taken with a human behind the camera. It quickly became an iconic photo, and has been reproduced more than almost any other picture in history. [3] In the years following, the picture’s significance has been recognized by the numerous accolades it has received, including being named number one in Life Magazine’s book 100 Photographs That Changed the World and being described by renowned nature photographer Galen Rowell as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” [4]

Bill Anders’ iconic Earthrise, the most recognizable material memory of the Apollo 8 mission and one of the most influential photographs in history.

In addition, Earthrise has served as a rallying point for other causes and sites of memory, most notably being credited with inspiring the first Earth Day and the environmental movement in general. Historian Christopher Riley declared that the photograph “fuelled an awareness of the vulnerability of the Earth which still resonates with us today and shapes our behaviour.” [5] Earthrise conveyed a message of Earth’s fragility, reminding the population that everyone lives here and it’s our duty to protect the only planet we have. Sure enough, the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, less than two years after Apollo 8 touched back down. In addition, various new environmental laws came into legislation as a result of the movement sparked by the photograph. [6] With the various ways in which Earthrise came to represent alternate events and ideals such as environmentalism, it’s clear that the photograph exhibits more than one of Barbie Zelizer’s processes of memory. It represents processual memory, as the photograph itself has modified the collective memory of Apollo 8 over time by associating it with Earth Day and environmentalism as a whole, even though this was not the initial focus of NASA, the astronauts, or even the families watching the mission unfold from their living rooms. The association of Earthrise with this cause also highlights the ways in which memories are usable, as the material memory of the great triumph that was a manned space mission around the moon was instrumentalized to work towards a somewhat unrelated cause, forever uniting the two. Finally, this famous photograph’s association with environmentalism represents a particular memory; although the universal memory linked with this shot will always be the Apollo mission itself, millions of people too attach it to ecological ideals.

Earthrise was soon featured on the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalog, an icon of the early environmental movement.

There’s no denying that the Apollo 8 mission was a needed bit of relief for America after the turbulent year that the country had faced. A great success to close out the year was only right, and helped send the nation into 1969 with a renewed sense of hope. In the 50 years that have followed the mission, there are various ways in which its memory has been preserved and modified. Material memory has sculpted both the official and vernacular memory of the event, most notably in the form of the Christmas Eve broadcast and the famed Earthrise photograph. These have grown to be associated with both the mission itself and the various movements that followed, such as the environmental movement and subsequent creation of Earth Day. No matter the ways in which the collective memory of Apollo 8 has been shaped, there’s no denying its overarching importance, both 50 years later and at the time it originally happened. Perhaps this sentiment can be best described by the words of an anonymous telegraph that the Apollo crew received just after returning to Earth: “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.” [7]

Link to a relevant, if not very, very, similar post that was published well after this one: This post goes more in depth on the circumstances surrounding the taking of the spontaneous Earthrise photo itself, including a transcription of the crew’s immediate reaction to seeing the view for the first time. It also focuses on different takes on the photo, including a rendition that depicts the Earth as a skull as a means to represent deaths caused by environmental destruction.



NASA. “Apollo 8.” NASA. July 8, 2009. Web. 20 Apr. 2018.


Apollo 8 Bill Anders’ Picture “Earthrise” was Taken on this Day 49 Years Ago. Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2017. ProQuest. 20 Apr. 2018 .


On Anniversary Of Apollo 8, How The ‘Earthrise’ Photo Was Made.” Morning Edition, 24 Dec. 2013. Science In Context, Accessed 20 Apr. 2018.


Sullivan, Robert. Life: 100 Photographs That Changed the World. Time-Life Books, 2003.


BBC NEWS | Science & Environment | Happy Birthday Earthrise.” N. p., 2018. Web. 20 Apr. 2018.


Turner, Fred. “Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (review).” Technology and Culture, vol. 51 no. 1, 2010, pp. 272-274. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tech.0.0418


Chaikin, A. (1999). A man on the moon. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books.


Greenspan, Jesse
Broadcast, Remembering, and Christmas Earth. “Remembering The Apollo 8 Christmas Eve Broadcast.” N. p., 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2018.


Andy Richardson




2 thoughts on “The Influential Material Memory of the Apollo 8 Mission”

  1. Interesting to think about how this event would have been different if there weren’t live broadcasts that occurred, documenting the event visually and in real time. Would people have been as fascinated with the incident had their only been pictures? And how did this affect how people treated the Apollo 11 mission – people still believe that the man on the moon landing was faked. It would be cool to see how the sight of the moon itself, with the naked eye or telescope, affects American memory.

  2. I love that this piece is able to show how the famous photo of the moon, Earthrise, is a processual form of memory. It’s crazy to think about how people viewed the photo back then and how we view it now. For example, like what you said, first just looking at the photo as amazing but then looking at the photo and realizing that we need to take care of our planet. Further, I also found it very neat that the astronauts recited Genesis while on the moon and it made me think about the processual memory of the text in Genesis. For example, when Moses was writing Genesis he probably never knew that this text would be read from the moon by astronauts? Wow. Now to me that is fascinating…to think about how the words we write may be saved and then thousands of years later read in a completely new setting!

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