The photo that changed the world : 1968 “Earthrise”

As one of the most tumultuous years in American history drew to a close, the nation shifted their attention skyward to the live broadcast on December 24, 1968.  On Christmas Eve, three crews of Apollo Mission 8 entered lunar orbit and held a live broadcast, showing pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. In front of the largest TV audience to date[1], U.S. astronauts described the experience of being the first humans in lunar orbit while transmitting close-up footage of the moon’s features. Millions around the world were watching and listening to broadcast. As their command module floated above the lunar surface, the astronauts beamed back images of the moon and Earth and took turns reading from the book of Genesis, closing with a wish for everyone “on the good Earth.”[2]

“We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice, and the only instructions that we got from NASA was to do something appropriate”

— Borman during 40th anniversiry celebration in 2008


Left to right: Command Module Pilot James Lovell, Lunar Module Pilot William Anders, Commander Frank Borman

Mission 8 was planned to compete in the “Space Race” with the Soviet Union to assert the dominance of the space superpowers, as indicated by the 1968 rescue agreement. It carried the responsibility to take high-resolution photographs of the moon surface —both from the far side and the potential landing site of the near side. Also, it aimed to examine the perfect spot for potential landing(realized in 1969 by Neil Armstrong ) and ensured that the spot will provide the best chance of survival once astronauts landed. The mission was also famous for the iconic “Earthrise” image, snapped by Anders, which would give humankind a new perspective on their home planet. Taking this picture was not on the schedule and was taken in a moment of pure serendipity[3].


Before the well-known colored earthrise was finally captured, a black-and-white image was taken on Borman’s order. It is the first photo of earth taken by human beings.

the first photograph took about Earthrise — a black-and-white version







Anders: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty?

Borman: Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled. (joking)

Anders: (laughs) You got a color film, Jim.? Hand me a roll of color quick, would you?

Lovell: Oh man, that’s great! Where is it?

Anders: Hurry! Quick!

Lovell: Down here?

Anders: Just grab me a color. A color exterior. Hurry up.

Anders: Got one?

Lovell: Yeah I am looking for one. C368.

Anders: Anything, quick.


As Earth Day approaches on April 22, we are reminded by this picture of how the earth is one whole unit that needs to be protected. It’s easy for us now to take this understanding of the Earth for granted, but before the Space Age, it was relatively uncommon to view the Earth this way. The”Earthrise” photograph, taken from a distance of 378,700 kilometers, quickly became a literal and influential embodiment of this view, helping to inspire both the environmental movement and, in 1970, the first Earth Day[4].

Whole Earth Catalog is an icon for the environmental movement and a representation of the materiality of “Earthrise”

These images, along with hundreds of other still pictures taken of the whole Earth during Apollo’s nine flights to the Moon, helped to drive the momentum of a burgeoning green movement during the 1970s. They fuelled an awareness of the vulnerability of the Earth which still resonates with us today and shapes our behavior.

— Christopher Riley


As this picture was utilized in several ways, the most influential use is when “Earthrise as skull” showed up in one Earth Day poster. It is a conceptual image of the Earth as a skull rising over the surface of the Moon. This can represent deaths caused by environmental destruction on Earth and call on people to protect the environment as part of the Earth Day mission.

Conceptual image: Earthrise As Skull

“Earthrise” showcases various concepts of collective memories. For example, it demonstrates-along with the full-size model of Mission 8 itself exhibited in 1968 exhibit-several of Zelizer’s premises. Firstly, it represents materiality.  The photograph itself well embodies the materiality since after people imagine what the planet they are living is like, it gives them an authentic answer by sending this photograph from the outer space. Additionally, it was materialized by the U.S. Postal Service when a stamp (Scott# 1371) was issued to commemorate the Apollo 8 flight around the Moon. Another evidence of its materiality is that this iconic picture appeared on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog[5], a counterculture magazine propagating ecology and Do It Yourself (DIY).  Moreover, this picture was demonstrated in a material way when it was handed to Rome’s Mayor as a gift and dubbed “The Picture of Rome”.  On the other hand, the memory of “Earthrise” is processual as it has transcended its original purpose that instead of just being a scientific and documentary record speaking only as photography from history, it related people to the environmental movement including Earth Day. The “Earthrise” picture also represents Schudson’s instrumentalization as the memory of it selects in the service of present interest.  In the 1960s and 70s, it was selected to cater the president’s wish to win the space race. With the end of the space race, it served to advocate the environmental protection when worldwide contamination was going to be severe. When the 45th anniversary of Apollo Mission 8 came, a simulation video was released which in some way demonstrated the brilliant technology era.


The stamp featured a detail (in color) of the “Earthrise” photograph, and the words, “In the beginning God…”, recalling the Apollo 8 Genesis reading


Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman (left) presenting “a picture of Rome” taken from the moon to Rome’s Mayor Rinaldo Santini (right).


NASA released a simulation video in 2013 on the 45th anniversary of Apollo 8 and the recording of three astronauts was first known to people.


Collective memory as it was, “Earthrise” is also a striking reminder of Earth’s vulnerability. We may have forgotten three courageous astronauts who died in the fatal fire of the Apollo 1 rehearsal test, the people who risked their lives getting to the Moon and who explored its dead landscape – a ‘beat-up’ world as they put it – but the view they brought back of that glittering blue hemisphere continues to mesmerize. Additionally, when everybody in the world–especially the Americans who suffered from its toughest year of history–lives in sorrow, the capture of the earthrise gives people the opportunity to see their planet as a whole and conveys a sense of peace, a stark contrast to wars at that time. Also, in great contradiction, while the moon was ‘dead as an old bone,’ the Earth was ‘the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos. Later after Mission 8 that year, amid the millions of letters from well-wishers around the world, the mission commander, Frank Borman, received a telegram from one American citizen that simply read: “Thank You Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”[6]


  1. NASA Content Administrator. “Apollo 8: Christmas at the Moon.” NASA, 19 Dec. 2014
  2. Greenspan Jesse. “Remembering the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve Broadcast.” History,23 Nov. 2015
  3. Robert Zimmerman. Genisis: The Story of Apollo 8. The Sciences, Nov/Dec 1998
    (pub Four Walls Eight Windows)”That Photograph”
  4. Ernie Wright. “The Making of an Icon: Earthrise.” NASA, 24 April. 2018
  5. Catherine G. Wagley. “The Whole Earth: The Story of an Image That Changed The World.” Adobe Create Magazine, 18 April. 2016.
  6. Jack Clemons. “Thank You for Saving 1968 (a parable for our times). Amazing Stories, 30 Dec. 2016

8 thoughts on “The photo that changed the world : 1968 “Earthrise””

  1. The way you portrayed this photo’s impact on the world was really professional yet amusing. I like how you included the original black and white picture too so we can understand the true, raw history of it. In addition, your use of quotations was very skillful and engaged the reader in your post.

  2. I really enjoyed that you chose this topic. I think that it is easy to forget the amazing things that happened in 1968 due to the amount of unrest within our country. The video you included was very intriguing and kept me hooked to the post. The way you connected the image with Zelizer’s processes of memory showed the image in a way that I do not think I would have ever seen it, which was really awesome. Lastly, the section about how “Earthrise” captures the vulnerability of the earth was extremely interesting and really opened up the photo for discussion on a new level.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post because you portray a sense of “awe” when describing this point in history. That picture must have been revolutionary because there was nothing like that beforehand. I think we definitely take our technology for granted considering how fast it has advanced in the past 50 years.

  4. This was a very engaging yet professional post. As Americans we love competition and the notion of the “Space Race” portrayed this love. Yet, at the same time your post shows the randomness of history. Like we learned in class from Zelizer, history is unpredictable. Taking a color picture was not planned and nobody could plan how the picture would be used in the future. I wonder do you think we would have made it to the moon if it was not for the “Space Race”?

    1. Good question. It’s hard to say but would be definitely not as fast. As I read a paper about Mission 8, it was not only taking color pictures was out of schedule but even the whole mission was launched almost a year before it was planned. And the reason was to compete with the Soviet Union since the latter sent Yuri Gagarin to space in 1961, beating the US in the first round. Now that taking photos was not what Mission 8 was supposed to do, what was the purpose of doing it and in such a hurry? Well, the exact and the only purpose was to find the best spot for moon landing (taking moon surface pictures, detecting potential landing site, etc.) as it was finally achieved in 1969 by Apollo Mission 11.

  5. This post was very interesting and enlightening. I had no idea that there was a photo like this prior reading your post. And it is even more interesting to see that it was taken during the unrest of 1968. I also loved the video you added, it really brings the whole post together and make it easier for your reader to understand the impact of this photo. Thank you for teaching me something new! Great job!

  6. I liked your post a lot! I find the materiality of the photograph itself interesting, as they say a picture says a thousand words. I feel that the picture as a site of memory has allowed this memory and the famous ‘space race’ to live on in all of our memories, creating a new sort of collective memory as pop culture and movies fill in the gaps for those of us who did not live in 1968. I really enjoyed the points you made about how the picture changed people’s perspectives, helping to unite those who, through this picture, were able to see the Earth as a whole, as something that all humans needed to protect and take care of. Particularly in the state of war that was 1968, I thought that this really demonstrates its usability. Overall great post!

  7. Great post! You did a very good job in capturing the effect that one photo can have, both immediately on the world and in future years. The way the Earthrise shot reappeared throughout the years is a perfect embodiment of many of the themes we have discussed in this class – you really chose a great topic to explore.

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