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A new look at a Christmas Eve message from Apollo 8

Posted December 23, 2013

Earthrise, as seen by the Apollo 8 astronauts.(NASA/Anders)

Forty-five years ago, while astronaut Frank Borman rotated the Apollo 8 spacecraft from a nose down position, his focus on the lunar surface was interrupted. Something caught his eye.

"Look at that picture over there! Here's the earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!"

Rising above the desolate lunar surface was home. Over the next minute and a half, astronauts Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders scrambled to photograph what Buzz Aldrin would later describe as "a bright blue marble suspended in the blackness of space."

It's a wonder the photo happened at all. Borman, Lovell and Anders had a full schedule during that first manned lunar voyage. They spent 20 sleepless hours of landmark and landing site tracking, photography and navigation to document the first manned voyage to the moon. When Borman began photographing the Earth, William Anders quipped, "Hey, don't take that, it's not scheduled."

Borman took a black-and-white image before the view disappeared from his window in the rotating spacecraft. As Earth came into view in Anders' window, he took over.

"Hand me that roll of color quick, will you? ... Let me get it out this window. It's a lot clearer."

Seconds later, as Earth entered Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell's window, he urgently asked Anders for the camera. Anders, less than eager to give up his job as mission photographer, replied, "Wait a minute, just let me get the right setting here now, just calm down. Calm down, Lovell!"

In those few seconds the crew captured a single black-and-white and two color images. For you photography buffs, they used custom 70 mm Kodak Ektachrome ASA 64 color transparency film loaded into a custom Hasselblad 500 EL camera with a 250mm prime lens set to 1/250 second at f/11.

NASA called the photo AS8-14-2383, but others have called the image transformative. Our first look back on Earth as humans. Life magazine included the image among its 100 Photographs that Changed the World.

The image is also nearly always presented wrong.

This iconic image we are so used to seeing was actually rotated 90° by earthbound photo editors who insisted that the moon's horizon be, well, horizontal. Astronauts saw a vertical horizon with Earth rising right to left as their spacecraft brought them around from the far side of the moon. But there is no up or down in space, so we'll let this bit of trivia go.

This week the Goddard Space Flight Center's Scientific Visualization Studio celebrated that 45th anniversary with animation that combines those images from Apollo 8 along with photo mosaics and elevation data from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) recreating that moment. The video also uses cloud data from the time from the ESSA-7 weather satellite to accurately represent Earth. The video is narrated by Andrew Chaikin, journalist and author of "A Man on the Moon," which the HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" is based on, and includes on-board audio of the astronauts.

On the last orbit around the moon, the astronauts hosted a live broadcast seen by millions. During the broadcast, each read from the Book of Genesis, pointing to it as "the foundation of most of the world's religions." Jim Lovell, now 85, re-enacted that reading on Monday in front of the Apollo 8 capsule on display at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, closing as the astronauts had 45 years ago:

"From the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.

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