Some two billion years ago, the first photosynthetic algae developed the ability to respond to the light – the glorious sunrise, the spectral moon at night. About 700 million years ago, primitive eye nodes appeared; during the Cambrian era, arthropod-like creatures in the sky looked through real eyes that felt the moon's rise and attitude with their arthropod-like understanding. So it continued in the following chapters of life with mammals, primates, hominins and Homo sapiens, the last of them deepens the Moon's movements and maps the Earth's accompanying terrain.
So 50 years ago the perspective turned. Apollo 8 took a figure-eight pattern around the moon, and on December 24, 1968, three NASA astronauts happened at the first Earthrise in the history of life. Most of the memories now jumping over the media focus the Earth itself, seen gibbous and beautiful far away. But the true power of the image comes from its compilation of two views that you have never seen before: our blue planet, wrapped with air and water and hope, as opposed to the lunar extraordinary gray desert.
In order to feel that power fully, you should see Earthrise not as a still image, but as an event immersed an experience in its time and place. I had an opportunity recently to do just that at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Carter Emmart, director of visualization at the museum, has compiled an Apollo 8 tribute that combines the original astronaut images with documentaries about the United States in 1968 and more vividly detailed simulations of the Apollo 8-lane around the moon. The simulation allows you to see the moon's landing below, synchronized with the astronauts' missions with mission control, to bring back the instant totality of the moment the Earth arose behind the dusty edge of the Moon.
Most people will not have the opportunity to visit the museum, but they can recreate much of the event that draws on resources available online – some of them created with Emmarts help. He has provided a useful list of the resources that I include at the end of this post. But first, I wanted to share some of his thoughts on reliving Apollo 8 with the memorable words from the apollo 8 astronauts themselves.
It seems bittersweet, remembering such a big moment when we haven't been back to the moon since Apollo 17. Do you feel that way too?
Emmart: People say, "We could have been in March in the mid 80's if we had kept the direction." The truth is, the goal of going to the Moon was attacked by politicians as soon as it was announced. But really, there are less details. Apollo 8 is a monument and it does not go away. You can visit the Smithsonian and see the Apollo pieces, but the real monument is in heaven. It reminds us that this world is a bridge to the universe. Earth is just another orb, we are in the sky of the moon like the moon is in ours.
The future is slower than we had hoped, but our visualization capabilities allow us to go there another way.
What did you learn about the Earthrise moment that you were trying to recreate?
Emmart: That image has such heritage. When you think of Apollo, you think of that picture. Before the moon was something in a landscape, romantic and mythological. Then we were suddenly over this desolate landscape – "magnificent desert," as Buzz Aldrin said. The lifeless moon beneath the Earth, where all living things we know are. I also wanted to be able to see the earth in real time when the Apollo 8 crew fired their rocket engine for spraying to see the earth's shrink.
The Apollo program was about walking out there. The lunches were around the moon. Kennedy's speech was about the moon and the stars. But when we got there we looked back and it really changed things. It ignited the environmental movement. The earth has never been without battle, but 1968 was a particularly difficult period. With Apollo 8 we looked back at all the shouts and screams and everything that split us, and then the opposite: This is our place, it's beautiful, and it lives. It is in sharp contrast to the non-living Moon.
You talk about Earthrise as a spontaneous moment. What do you mean by that?
Emmart: NASA was detailed about everything, down to split second, but the Earthrise pictures just happened: "Yes, I take a picture of it." It is only connected at such a human level. When the astronauts tried to say something appropriate to say [on their Christmas Eve broadcast], they chose Genesis from the Old Testament, one of the deepest common origins of myths. It was a surprise even for the air traffic controllers. Gene Kranz [the NASA flight director] said he had tears in his eyes because it was so big.
Looking back on the ground was really profound. We knew what our planet was, but we didn't really do that know it until we saw it.
The feeling of destruction really comes across in the words of the astronauts and in the pictures when one sees the full Earthrise unfold.
Emmart: I don't want to be a contrarian and say, "Listen to what they said about the moon, it's terrible!" But that is a consideration of it. With power visualization, I have felt that the desert is watching it. All three of them [on Apollo 8] talked about how the moon was beautiful, but it had a sharp and untouched quality. Lonely. Not a very welcoming place to stay or work. I think NASA was freaking out [about the gloomy tone of their comments]. But I'm glad NASA didn't control their reactions. They responded in a very human way.
How did this feeling of the wilderness affect the way they perceived the earth?
Emmart: You hear the astronauts talk about how the room's darkness had a personality about it. [Apollo 17 astronaut] Gene Cernan said roughly, "You see the sun and it's fiery, it's too bright to look at, and then you turn to the side, and that light just goes out into the swell that swallows it up." It's an almost black addition to conception. And then the light hits something! When it hits the moon, it is heather gray. Now take the hill gray and turn it the white of the earth's clouds and the blues of the sea and greenery and the brown-brown islands of the desert.
This is an artist's palette, a palette you can't see anywhere else in the solar system. Earth sparkles with life. Then you look at the moon. It is outside our magnetosphere, it has land that is due to glass, it is a very hard place. It is the important message of the Apollo 8 image. The mission was to beat the Russians for the Moon, but then it became a surprising Kumbaya moment. This is us, we all in the picture, whether we like it or not.
The Apollo 8 astronauts should get the last word, so here are their own spontaneous reactions to look at the Moon, as opposed to the pulsating azure spirit of the Earth.
Frank Borman: The Moon is another thing for each of us. I think each of us – each carries his own impression of what he has seen today. I know my own impression is that it is a large, lonely forbidden-type existence or nothing at all that looks more like clouds and clouds of pumice stone, and it certainly does not seem to be a very inviting place to live or work.
Jim Lovell: My thoughts are very similar. The great loneliness up to the moon is awe inspiring and it makes you realize what you have left there on Earth. The earth from here is a great oasis in the greatness of the room.
Bill Anders: I think what impressed me the most was the moon's sunrise and sunsets. These especially promote the terrific nature of the terrain, and the long shadows really bring the relief that is here and hard to see on this very bright surface that we pass right now … The sky up here also does not prohibit any prehistoric expansion of dark, without stars visible when we fly over the moon in daylight.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES allowing you to share the Apollo 8 experience:
The OpenSpace software was designed for the type of track information describing the shared second accuracy needed to accurately describe room visits. The site has open source download, description and videos including tutorials.
Scientists at NASA-JPL and the Ames Research Center have built a wonderful intuitive browser that can also display 3D views and model outputs for 3D printing the moon.
NASA Goddard also has a fantastic browser of temporal data on Earth. You can go directly to the picture if you want.
Carter Emmart worked with a group of students to use photogrammetry to breathe new visual life into the old Hasselblad image of the moon.
We still have the full Apollo 8 crew alive, the only full crew left. They were honored last month in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry with host and author Robert Kurson, who recently wrote their story in the book Rocket Men. There is a video recording of this unique memorial event.