We saw Earth rise over the moon in 1968. It changed everything.

Photograph by NASA

A half-century ago, three humans sailed into lunar orbit, looped around the moon 10 times, and returned home. By the time Earth’s gravity had once again fastened them firmly to the planet, the Apollo 8 crew were rightly celebrated as the first Earthlings to visit our celestial companion.

But their true legacy revealed itself three days later, on December 30, 1968, when NASA released an image taken on Christmas Eve that shows our home planet suspended above the moon.

Now called Earthrise, the image is legendary; a postcard from the first souls to truly leave Earth behind. True, spacecraft had sent back views like this before, but this photo was the first of its kind taken by a spellbound human holding a camera. In it, Earth’s marbled beauty leaps from the darkness of space, amplified by the bleak, almost monochromatic lunar horizon in the foreground.

“It’s clearly the most important photograph ever made,” says National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, who likens the image to humanity seeing itself in a mirror for the first time.

“We have astronauts on a spaceship in another place, looking back on this beautiful planet with another heavenly body in the foreground—it’s stunning. It checks all the boxes.”

The birth of Earthrise

Initially projected to be delayed by hardware issues, the Apollo 8 flight date got moved up to December 1968, as rumors suggested that the Soviets would imminently attempt to send a human to the moon. Having been beaten to space by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin...

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