In December of 1968, a particularly difficult year in the U.S. and elsewhere, NASA’s Apollo 8 mission offered a moment of hope and beauty. Launched on December 21, the mission achieved many important “firsts” critical to achieving the moon landing, which would eventually happen halfway through 1969 — first (manned) launch from the Kennedy Space Center, first crewed flight of the behemoth Saturn V rocket, first humans past high Earth orbit, first humans to the moon, around the moon, back from the moon, first live TV images of the lunar surface.
But it was one of the first still color photographs taken by a human (Bill Anders) from deep space that became a provocative and enduring symbol of the beauty and fragility of our blue planet. It came to be known as “Earthrise,” and it was taken on December 24, 1968.
Here’s a poem from my collection, “Moon Shot,” inspired by the taking of this photograph:
Sometimes the best-laid mission plan,
tidy and typed in carbon triplicate
will miss something, even
with the laser-vision of all those eyes.
Sometimes, the mission itself
shifts as it unfolds,
as you’re breathless in the thrill
of hitting goals no one had thought
to set down on paper.
if you’re prepping
to be the first guys to fly out to the moon—
not land on it, just everything but—
you’ll have studied your lunar maps,
the photographs snapped
by the machines sent in advance
who knew only to obey the crude code
with which they were programmed.
And NASA will have outfitted you
with all the best cameras and lenses they could find
and a list – such a list – of targets
to capture in color and black and white:
rilles, craters, debris fields, potential landing sites,
boulders, valleys, constellations.
But your exhaustive and specific list
will omit one simple thing,
and you won’t realize it until,
on the third lunar orbit,
freshly trimmed from an ellipse to a circle,
and “heads up” for the first time, you see
rising, improbably, fantastically,
from beneath the moon’s horizon.
You’re so well-trained
that your initial impulse
is to stick to mission, stick
to ticking off that list
everybody agreed on
back there on the ground
but the earth
the earth is coming up
over the moon
like the moon
like the sun
like nothing you have a metaphor for
and you are so well-trained
that you can still reach just past
the mission-bound edges of that training
and snap the color photographs
not on the checklist,
the photographs no one knew
would need to be taken –
the now-ubiquitous whole earth,
blue and borderless and feathered
dangling in the void
no longer an abstraction.
Who knows what lunar ravine,
what highlands or nameless maria
lost their place in the queue
so that everything we knew
could shift into new focus,
so we could be remade, albeit briefly,
by just a glance at this first true likeness