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The genesis of Apollo 8’s ‘earthrise’

Read an excerpt from “Genesis,” Robert Zimmerman’s new book about the historic 1968 flight of Apollo 8.
The rising Earth looms above the lunar horizon in this telephoto view taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft. For years, space historians have debated who took this picture. The book "Genesis" provides the answer.
The rising Earth looms above the lunar horizon in this telephoto view taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft. For years, space historians have debated who took this picture. The book "Genesis" provides the answer.

Back in 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 made the first around-the-moon flight — a Christmas mission that set the stage for the first moon landing less than a year later. In this excerpt from the book “Genesis,” Robert Zimmerman focuses on the events leading up to the “earthrise” picture, the first widely distributed picture of Earth as seen from the moon.

This excerpt begins just after the crew members of Apollo 8 — Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Jim Lovell — fired the Apollo spacecraft’s engines to enter lunar orbit on Dec. 24, 1968.

With the show over, Borman and Anders prepared for the second orbital burn, scheduled for when they were behind the moon. This would lower the high point of their orbit from 194 miles to 70, thereby circularizing it.

Lovell took the mike and continued the description of the lunar surface, reporting that “The view at this altitude is tremendous. There is no trouble picking out features we learned on the map. ... I wish we had the TV still going.” In lunar orbit Lovell’s job was to study the lunar surface from the perspective of navigation. Could the navigational charts, created from Lunar Orbiter photos, be used to find one’s location on the lunar surface? Were the prime landing spots for future Apollo missions acceptable? Or were there any unidentified obstacles that might cause problems? And could an astronaut see those obstacles and pilot his way through them?

He described such features as the Sea of Tranquility, the crater Taruntius, and the mountains that skirted both. “The mountain range has got more contrast, because of the sun angle,” he noted. Then he inexplicably said, “I can see the initial point right now, Mount Marilyn.” [1]

Though Mike Collins on the ground responded, “Roger,” he had no idea what Lovell was talking about. His knowledge of the area around the Sea of Tranquility included no such mountain.

Until Lovell had arrived that had been true. The ancient astronomers had never seen Mount Marilyn with their earthbound telescopes. NASA hadn’t given it a name when their unmanned probes had photographed it. And neither Borman nor Anders had noticed it when they had studied the maps prior to launch.

Just as he had promised, he had brought his wife with him to the moon. Even if some bureaucrat in some scientific institution might not consider the name Mount Marilyn official, it was now that mountain’s name to him. [2]

Much like Anders, Lovell had chosen shrewdly. Placed on the edge of the Sea of Tranquillity just east of the Apollo 11 lunar landing site, Mount Marilyn would be on all the maps used by Armstrong and Aldrin when they made their historic approach six months later. In fact, they would fly right over it as they came in for a landing.

The astronauts slipped behind the moon for the third time. As they had on the first orbit, Anders and Borman worked their way down a long checklist, making sure everything was right for the engine burn, while Lovell programmed the computer. Thirty minutes later the SPS engine fired for the third time, burning for 21 seconds and lowering their orbit. It would now take them an hour and 40 minutes to circle the moon instead of two hours.

The pace was unrelenting. Even as the men finished this burn they immediately resumed their photography and reconnaissance of the barren lunar surface. And when they came out from behind the moon, Borman and Lovell once again went through the tedious but critical routine of taking down new numbers for the computer, while Anders reviewed the status of the fuel cells and life support systems with the ground.

Just before 10 a.m., Frank Borman decided it was time to do something slightly less technical. He asked if Rod Rose was around.

Mike Collins told Borman that “Rod Rose is sitting up in the viewing room. He can hear what you say.”

A month earlier, just before Borman had left for Florida, he attended Sunday church services at his local parish, St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in League City, Texas. As one of the church’s lay readers who routinely read aloud to the congregation during church services, Borman had planned to participate in the Christmas Day services. When NASA made the sudden decision to send Apollo 8 to the moon, he found he had to explain why he couldn’t be there. “We kidded Frank about going to such lengths — all the way to the moon — to get out of ... services,” said his reverend, James Buckner. [3]

The conversation soon turned serious. Borman really wanted to participate in that Christmas Day service, but didn’t have any idea what he could do. Fellow parishioner Rod Rose, an engineer at mission control, offered a solution. He would put together a short prayer that Borman could read from orbit, tape Borman’s recitation, and then play the tape back at church. For Borman, the practical test pilot, this plan was perfect. Rose cobbled together a prayer from a number of verses in the Bible, and went over it with Borman until both were happy.

Now, Borman waited until Lovell and Anders finished passing some new data to the ground. Then he began, a little self-consciously. “This is to Rod Rose and the people at St. Christopher’s, actually to people everywhere.” Borman took a breath. “Give us, o God, the vision which can see thy love in the world, in spite of human failure. Give us the faith to trust the goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness. Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts, and show us what each one of us can do to set forth the coming of the day of universal peace. Amen.”

“Amen,” Mike Collins echoed softly.

Now Borman sheepishly added, “I was supposed to lay-read tonight, but I couldn’t quite make it.”

“Roger,” said Collins. “I think they understand.”

Susan, already back from the beauty parlor, heard the prayer and felt only relief that one more possible disaster had past. She had become so pessimistic that even as simple a thing as Frank reading a prayer aloud seemed a miracle.

In the spacecraft the work went on. As soon as Borman finished reading his prayer, Collins asked him when they had last chlorinated their water. The astronauts’ drinking water was produced as a by-product of the generation of electricity by their fuel-cells. This water was transferred into a tank, and periodically the crew manually injected chlorine into it to keep the water free from bacteria. Borman confirmed that they had done so 90 minutes earlier. “Jim spilled a little, and it smelled like a bucket of chlorine in here.”

Ten minutes later they slipped behind the moon for the fourth time. It was now midmorning, Tuesday. Except for those short naps twelve hours earlier, they had all been awake since early Monday morning.

But it wasn’t yet time to sleep. Now Anders’ photography became the prime mission focus. Though Borman’s word was law when it came to running the overall mission, Anders usually supervised the taking of photographs. If someone else wanted to take a picture, they generally cleared it with him first to make sure it fit into the mission’s objectives. Mostly, however, they left the photography to him.

As Anders worked he logged his subject by announcing what he was doing out loud, recording the information on the onboard tape recorder. “OK, definitely frame 114, target of opportunity, extremely fresh impact crater. Time 75:39:30.” For 40 minutes, the other two men kept quiet, letting Anders do his job. Borman would continually adjust the spacecraft’s attitude so that its nose always pointed downward, thereby keeping the lunar surface visible in the least obstructed windows.

Just before they came out from behind the moon, Anders finally stopped. Borman needed to roll the spacecraft so that Lovell could do a navigational sighting, and he and Lovell had been waiting patiently for Anders to finish. With only seconds before they reacquired earth signal Anders gave the OK, and Borman started the roll.

To do this Borman gazed out his window, using the moon’s horizon as a reference point. Suddenly he noticed a blue-and-white fuzzy arch edging upward from behind the moon’s sharp horizon line of dreary gray. This growing round patch was the only color in a black-and-white universe. “Oh my God!” Borman cried out. “Look at that picture over there! Here’s the earth coming up!” He stared at the earthrise in wonder. “Wow, is that pretty.”

Lovell gaped. “Oh man, that’s great!”

Suddenly, they all realized that they had to get a picture. Of all the objectives NASA had set before launch, no one had thought of photographing the earth from lunar orbit. Borman grabbed the nearby floating camera that Anders had been using and snapped a picture, only to have Bill joke, “Hey don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.”

They all laughed. Borman handed the camera to Anders and looked out the window again. “Gee,” he sighed. The earth was so beautiful, and so far away.

Anders also wanted to get a picture but the camera Borman had given him was loaded with black-and-white film. “Hand me that roll of color quick,” he said to Lovell, who was closest to the correct storage locker. For a few moments there was panic as Lovell scrambled to get him the film and Anders struggled to load it. Then they jostled for position at the window.

Anders: “Let me get it out this window. It’s a lot clearer.”

Lovell: “Bill, I got it framed — it’s very clear right here.”

Outside the half-full earth had now risen several degrees above the horizon. It glistened with a blue-white gleam against that jet-black sky, the moon’s dead surface hanging below it.

As Anders framed the shot Lovell hung over his shoulder, almost taking the camera from him in his desire to make sure the picture was taken. Borman had to tell him to calm down.

Lovell was entranced. “Oh, that’s a beautiful shot.” He asked Anders to take a number of pictures, varying the exposure.

Anders nodded. “I did. I took two of them.”

“You sure we got it now?”

“Yes.” He looked at Lovell dryly. “It’ll come up again, I think.”

The three men stared at their home planet as it drifted slowly up into the sky. They had just witnessed the first earthrise ever seen by any human being. [4]



The transcripts (03 00 05 40) quote Lovell as saying “I can see the old second bishop right now.” This however makes no sense to him. Since Mount Marilyn was “the initial point,” the first landmark used by Armstrong and Aldrin as they began their descent to the lunar surface, he believes that this is what he said, and that the transcription is in error.


For what seem to be political and to this writer somewhat petty reasons, the scientific organization which has taken upon itself the task of officially naming astronomical objects, the International Astronomical Union, rejected all of the names chosen by both Anders and Lovell. Instead, the IAU named three small craters after the Apollo 8 astronauts in a part of the moon the astronauts never saw.

A map showing the location of both Bill Anders’s named craters as well as Lovell’s Mount Marilyn is included in this book as my statement of disagreement with the IAU. It seems to me that the explorer, the person who risked his or her life to discover new worlds (rather than some bureaucrat on earth) should always be given the perogative of choosing the names.

Regardless, it will be up to future generations to decide.


Parade, 2/23/69, 20-21


For years there has been confusion over who took the earthrise picture that was seen on millions of stamps and magazine covers soon after the astronauts’ return. Borman always claimed that he took it, and anyone who knew Frank Borman (including Bill Anders and Jim Lovell) knew he wouldn’t make this claim unless he believed it to be true. Yet, the transcripts clearly show that Bill Anders took the color picture familiar to us all. For years, no one could quite understand why Borman appeared to be trying to claim credit for something he hadn’t done — an action completely uncharacteristic of him.

The solution to the mystery is that more than one picture was taken. Borman took the first earthrise shot ever taken, but his black-and-white photograph on a different roll of film has been ignored all these years because Anders’ later but prettier color shot of the same earthrise was available.

Because Anders so much wanted to get credit for his photograph, Lovell has spent a great deal of time needling his good friend about it in public. For example, Lovell simply refuses to state in public who took the picture, despite knowing that Anders took it. When I asked him why he does this, he grinned and said, “It keeps us young and happy.”

Excerpt from “Genesis” by Robert Zimmerman. Copyright ©1998 Robert Zimmerman. From the book published by Four Walls Eight Windows, New York.