The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


The photograph that changed Earth

When you think of any historical event over the last century and a half, chances are it calls to mind an image. Most likely, that image is a photograph. From the daguerreotypes of Civil War battlefields, to images of the Berlin Wall coming down, we live in an age shaped by photography.  But in the late 1960s, one photo in particular transcended national politics – and indeed, the Earth itself. In the words of Robert Poole, who joined us on our episode exploring the heavens:

“…The first 2/3 of the 20th century were largely about progress or sometimes about fear of progress. But people assumed that technological progress would go on pretty much forever…that the earth was unlimited. The earth was so big. The sky was so huge. The oceans were so big. We couldn’t possibly fill them up, damage them, pollute them, or alter them. Of course, we know massively different now.  And part of the reason is that sight of the earth. It is absolutely tiny.”

Earthrise Stamp

Apollo 8 Stamp emphasizing the fragile, almost divine nature of the Earth. (Image via NASA)

Poole says that Earthrise, the famous snapshot of Earth coming up over the edge of the moon taken in 1968, had a very different impact than other “famous photos in history.” It brought home to Americans – and people around the world – that all those national borders and big old globes didn’t capture the tiny, fragile and naturally unified reality of the planet itself.

“Most people were used to seeing globes and maps of the earth that simply consisted mainly of political boundaries and patchwork colors. And so the view of the earth as this blue and white abstract globe floating in space was something completely different … And there was an idealistic sense that once people understood, if you like, what the earth was really like as seen from space in its natural wholeness, that they would realize that the arguments that divide nations and peoples were really quite petty.”


Space Earth Day

The movement for the first Earth Day consciously appropriated the new space-borne images of Earth as small and fragile. (Image via Environmental Humanities Now)

Sure, Poole acknowledges, this internationalist idealism couldn’t hold up to the stresses of the Cold War. But if it never really caught on politically, the famous view of Earth from space did catch on in science and ecology.

“Ecology booms in 1969. Again, this probably would have happened anyway. But the image of the whole earth seems to give the whole thing some kind of shape and point. And there was a real sense for the first time that the Earth was limited and that mankind had to work within it.”

But Backstory is never content just to think about the effects of a historical moment. We also want to find out, well, the backstory! So we talked to William Anders, the man who actually took the famous photograph while he was orbiting the moon.



The Apollo 8 crew. William Anders is closest to the camera. (Via NASA)

The Apollo 8 crew. William Anders is closest to the camera. (Via NASA)

First off, he told us, their now famous shot was both a race against time, and an improvisation – far different from what they originally thought Apollo 8 would be all about.

“…our flight was originally to test out the lunar module…But when the Soviets were rumored by the CIA to plan a circumlunar flight of their own, and thus steal a lot of the PR value of what Kennedy had in mind, NASA very bravely wrenched the program around, took the lunar module away from our flight, moved us ahead to be the first ones to ride on the giant Saturn V rocket, and send us around the moon.”

So, Apollo 8’s path around the moon was an unexpected outcome of Cold War tensions. The ‘earthrise’ snap was even more of a chance. Once Anders and his crew were sent around the moon, the idea was that they’d gather black and white photos of the moon’s surface, since they were in the neighborhood.

Moon surface picture

This is the sort of photo Col. Anders was supposed to be taking. (Via NASA.)

“…we were going backwards looking down at the moon from the direction we came, that’s all we saw was the moon. And it wasn’t until we reoriented the space craft, turned it around, and faced it forward that we were able to see the earth coming up over the lunar horizon…the earth was not in the flight plan at all. You might wonder why. I have, but never come up with a good answer, except that we just didn’t think about it or NASA didn’t think about it.”

Even then, the photo was not exactly the one we remember. As Anders told us,


The original angle of the earthrise photo. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

The original angle of the earthrise photo. (Via Wikimedia Commons)


“…The Earthrise was printed upside down. In other  words, they flipped it. So I’ve never been able to– I’ve always wondered why I couldn’t figure out the continent. And I guess, if you look at the negative through the back, you can figure it out. But I thought that was ironic because this thing’s been replicated a billion times probably on stamps and other things.”






Image: The final Earthrise image, via NASA.

Image: The final Earthrise image, via NASA.


It shows just how complicated the causes and effects of history can be. It took international rivalry, a last minute rerouting of a mission, one determined space photographer, and a last minute flip of the negative to transform the Earth’s image for people all around the world.