On Dec. 21, 1968, Apollo 8 launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Fla. The astronaut crew — Frank Borman, Bill Anders and James Lovell — were the first humans to escape Earth’s orbit, venturing about 240,000 miles farther than anyone before them.
Their mission was to orbit the moon, testing the viability of a future moon landing. NASA was focused on getting to the moon and beating the Soviet Union in the space race; everything else, including photography, was secondary. Yet during their lunar orbit, the crew emerged from the dark side of the moon to see the Earth rising before them over the lunar horizon. They scrambled to capture the image, producing the first color photograph taken of the Earth from the moon. It became known as “Earthrise” and has become one of the most well-known photographs in history.
The iconic “Earthrise” photograph shifted the vision of space exploration from one that leaves Earth behind to one that marvels in the rare magnificence and beauty of our home planet. It ushered in a collective awareness of the Earth as a whole, transcending borders and boundaries, and came to be used by many to instill a sense of wonder, awe and stewardship toward the planet. It was a natural inspiration for the creation of Earth Day, and subsequently for the environmental movement as a whole.
I’ve always loved the Earth photography captured during the Apollo missions, and the “Earthrise” image is particularly poignant for me. In all the tellings I watched or read of Apollo 8 — and there are many — I wanted to experience more. I wanted to know the story behind the photograph, to know what it was like for the first human beings to see and experience Earth from space.
I wondered what role this image could offer us 50 years later as we face intense political, social and ecological upheaval. Could it become a symbol of remembrance that unites us?
All these years later, the Apollo 8 astronauts still remembered every detail of their mission and their experience looking back at the Earth. I had approached the interviews with all sorts of ideas about the profound insights they would share, the epiphanies they must have had and how it had forever changed their lives. And while they offered these insights during the interviews, they also provided something much simpler, something much more human that touched me the most. It was as if seeing the Earth from the moon had awakened a primordial feeling within each of them. Home.
My editor Adam Loften and I spent countless hours reviewing archive footage and photography from the Apollo missions. The tactile quality of the 16 mm footage and 70 mm photography imparted a quality I felt was lacking from the crisp digital images from satellites and the International Space Station I’d become accustomed to seeing. I could almost feel the human presence behind the lens, a sense of emotion that was imparted to the footage itself. In telling the story, I wanted to create that human connection to the Earth I felt within the footage and the astronauts’ experiences. I wanted to explore how to feel and witness the Earth as our home the way they had. I wanted to share the awe and beauty they had experienced, to remember the power of this image they shared with the world.
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee is a filmmaker and composer. His previous Op-Docs are “Who Speaks Wukchumni?,” “Vanishing Island” and “Sanctuaries of Silence.”