On Dec. 27, 1968, two days after Christmas in one of the USA’s worst years on record, the astronauts aboard Apollo 8 returned home after almost a week in space.
The NASA mission crewed by astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders logged a number of important firsts. It was the first human-crewed space mission to launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, the first one to reach the Moon (or any other astronomical object, for that matter), and also the first to orbit Earth’s only natural satellite.
It was also, notably, the first time any human ever got to see an “Earthrise.” (Think sunrise, except it’s looking at the Earth from the Moon.)
It was Anders who captured what has since become an iconic image highlighting humanity’s early steps beyond the Earth’s surface. And just ahead of Christmas 2020, right around the 52nd anniversary of the photo being taken, NASA highlighted this peaceful view of our planet in one of its daily photo drops.
Anders described the moment in an older interview. Apollo 8 had already done several orbits around the Moon before anyone aboard could even see the way back home, since the ship was flipped over and moving backwards (from the perspective of the astronauts) during its initial rotations.
But then they managed to roll Apollo 8 over and face it forward, “like you would be driving a car around the moon.” You have to remember that, at this point, no one in human history had ever seen the Earth firsthand from such a distance. So there was a base level of excitement for the three men as home came into view.
I don’t know who said it, maybe all of us said, ‘Oh my God. Look at that!'” Anders said. “And up came the Earth. We had had no discussion on the ground, no briefing, no instructions on what to do. I jokingly said, ‘well it’s not on the flight plan,’ and the other two guys were yelling at me to give them cameras. I had the only color camera with a long lens. So I floated a black and white over to Borman. I can’t remember what Lovell got. There were all yelling for cameras, and we started snapping away.”
The rest is history, and a shining tribute to human achievement. The greatest holiday gift anyone could ask for.