by Drew Dellinger (Dec 27, 2013)
Forty years ago, on Christmas Eve 1968, an astronaut orbiting the Moon took a photograph that changed the world. As we near the end of the 40th anniversary of one of the most heart-breaking years in our history, it is worth remembering that the year of trauma ended in triumph.
As ’68 dawned, the Tet offensive dispelled illusions of easy victory in Vietnam. Later that spring, in the early evening of April 4, one of the world’s most visible and visionary activists for justice was shot down in Memphis, triggering waves of outrage and sadness, as more than 100 cities burst into flames of despair and rebellion. Two months later, Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles.
Throughout ’68, student protests and general uprisings broke out in Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere. In Mexico City, after the October 2nd Tlatelolco student massacre, the Summer Olympics set the stage for the raised-fist defiance of John Carlos and Tommie Smith. In August, police and demonstrators clashed violently at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
This was the troubled world that the crew of Apollo 8 left behind in December, as they became the first humans to journey around the Moon. Just as it seemed the world was falling apart, the astronauts on Apollo 8 took a photograph that would bring us all together, and forever change our image of the Planet and ourselves.
In 1948, the British astronomer Fred Hoyle predicted that ”once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available…a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” However, the earliest attempts at such a photo were not particularly impressive. The first photograph of Earth from space was transmitted by a U.S. Explorer satellite in August of 1959. The picture was badly blurred. Other images were better, but strangely, never shared with the general public. […]
But the photograph taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts on Christmas Eve of ’68 would have a special resonance in the world’s imagination. Perhaps because it was taken by human hands and not a satellite; Perhaps because it included the edge of the Moon in the foreground, providing the element of Earth as seen from the perspective of another celestial body.
A year before the Apollo 8 mission, on December 24, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. had stood in his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta–his last Christmas Eve on Earth–and proclaimed that “If we are to have peace on Earth…we must develop a world perspective.”
”As nations and individuals, we are interdependent,” preached King. ”It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
One year later, Dr. King’s prophetic call for ”a world perspective” would be realized, as the three crew members aboard Apollo 8 captured an image of the world that the world had never seen.
Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were the first humans to see the Earth from space in its wholeness, as a unity. The astronauts were astonished the first time they saw the Earth emerging around the edge of the Moon’s horizon. During their fourth orbit around the lunar sphere, the crew was engrossed in photography of the Moon’s surface, scouting out landing sites for later Apollo missions, when Frank Borman glimpsed something. “Oh, my God!” he exclaimed, “Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!” […]
The crew of Apollo 8 had successfully captured an image that would alter human consciousness. There it was: The radiant, living Earth; Resplendent in space; Juxtaposed against the barren lunar landscape and the dark expanse; Floating; Infinitely beautiful; Sunlit against the black cosmos; Wet with oceans and alive with swirling clouds. The iconic “Earthrise” picture would later be called ”the single most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” […]
And just as Fred Hoyle had predicted, a powerful new idea was unleashed: a new era of ecology and environmental consciousness was born. […]
But four decades after that revelatory “Earthrise” photograph, our precious Planet is more imperiled than ever. Though the impact of the photograph of Earth from space is undeniable, we have yet to fully integrate its lesson.
–Drew Dellinger in Christmas 1968 and the Photograph that Changed the World.