“250 At F/11” — The Story Behind The Apollo 8 Earthrise Photo

Bill Anders got the roll of color film in the camera just in time to take this historic photo Earth rising over the sun-baked lunar landscape on December 24, 1968. Bill Anders / NASA

50 years ago on December 24, 1968, the Apollo 8 astronaut crew captured one of the most iconic color images of the space age.  The three men — Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman — were the first leave the embrace of Earth and enter lunar orbit. Circling the moon 10 times on Christmas Eve, they saw Earth rise over a forbidding lunar landscape. The purpose of the mission was to demonstrate the use of the Apollo command and service modules while orbiting the moon and take high-resolution photos of proposed Apollo landing areas.

On Apollo 8’s fourth of 10 orbits of the moon, mission commander Frank Borman performed a roll maneuver that brought a surprise visitor into view from Bill Anders’ cabin window — the rising Earth! Here’s a quick summary of the video (below), which was created for the 45th anniversary and worth seeing again:

At 10:38 a.m. (Central Time) Anders calls out:

“Oh my God, look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty!”

Anders’ first photo — in black-and-white — of the Earth rising along the lunar limb. Earth is higher up in the color image because it was taken roughly a minute later when the spacecraft’s motion around the moon had lifted the Earth higher above the lunar horizon. Bill Anders / NASA

The camera he was using at the time, a Hasselblad equipped with a 250mm lens, was loaded with black-and-white film. After taking a first photo, he calls out to Lovell to get a roll of color film, quick! Lovell rummages around for almost a full minute looking for a roll as Anders’ grows more urgent. Remember, the spacecraft is slowly rolling, so the Earth is starting to slip out of view.

Details and transcript of how the Earthrise photo was made on Christmas Eve 1968. Voice transcript starts at about 2 minutes 25 seconds in.

Just as Anders gets the color film in the camera, Earth disappears from his window. He thinks he misses the shot, but Lovell calls out that he has a great view of it from his window and asks for the camera. Anders tells him to calm down, gets into position at the hatch window and takes a couple color photos just in time. Lovell calls out the exposure: “250 at f/11” or 1/250th of a second shutter speed with the aperture set to f/11, exactly what you’d expect for a bright sunlit moon and Earth with an ISO of about 100 — my educated guess on the film speed.

Although the Apollo 8 mission was the first time humans saw the Earth from the moon, NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1 took the very first photo from orbit on August 23, 1966. NASA

In a 1987 interview with Apollo historian Andrew Chaikin, Anders described the sight as the most beautiful he’d ever seen. Moreover, it was completely unanticipated. They didn’t see Earth on the previous three orbits because of the craft’s orientation. It was that serendipitous roll that brought the blue planet into view at just the right time. Because the crew was so focused on training to go to the moon, nobody was thinking about looking out for Earth. Yet looking back, Anders thought that seeing Earth from the moon was the most interesting aspect of the flight. It’s fair to say that the sight of our planet above the lifeless moon brought everything into perspective — no words needed.

I was 15 years old at the time and remember the mission well. While the crew was in lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Lovell and Anders read from Genesis followed by this touching remark from Borman that will always stay with me:

“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

2 Responses

  1. Chuck Cox

    Thanks for this memento of the very best that came out of the tumultuous ’60s. Those times, half a century ago, seem in some ways as far removed from our current situation as that little spacecraft was, a quarter million miles out in the void, looking back on the good Earth. Again, thanks!

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