How "Earthrise" Changed the Way We See The World

The story behind one of the most influential environmental photographs of the twentieth century.

One of the most influential environmental photographs ever taken almost didn’t happen. In this excerpt from Seeing Science: How Photography Reveals the Universe, Marvin Heiferman tells the story of William Anders’s Earthrise.

A photo of the earth "rising" above the horizon of the moon.

William Anders, Earthrise, 1968
Courtesy NASA

Earthrise—one of the best known and most widely reproduced of all science photographs—was a fluke. On Christmas Eve, 1968, after three days of space travel, America’s Apollo 8 spacecraft was on its fourth orbit around the moon when Frank Borman, the commander of the mission, began to reposition it so that the topography below could be better filmed to document potential future landing sites. During the brief time that the capsule’s windows faced away from the lunar surface, astronaut William Anders looked through them and was startled by what he saw: “Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!” Anders grabbed a Hasselblad camera, loaded it with 70 mm Ektachrome film, and hastily shot off a couple of frames to capture an unanticipated and spectacular sight: Earth’s seeming ascent above the moon’s rough surface.

After splashdown on Earth and once Anders’s film was processed, one image from it, circulated worldwide by the media, left viewers awestruck. Serene, if a little disquieting, the photograph presents the marbled, blue-and-white planet’s fragile beauty that, seen from a distance, hints at Earth’s insignificance in the vastness of space. Wonder and intimations of the sublime are the frequent by-products of science photography, and the most paradigm-changing of images can be simultaneously mind-boggling and sobering. “Wonder is tinged with awe . . . and it’s also tinged with fear,” science historian Lorraine Daston wrote. “It’s an uncomfortable emotion. You don’t have wonder. Wonder has you.” Once it does, and thanks to photography, we keep on looking.

A rendering of the cover of Seeing Science

Click here to learn more about Seeing Science: How Photography Reveals the Universe.