The Incredible Story of The Most Profound Photograph Ever Taken

This is the story of "Earthrise," an image that changed the world, emerging from the unlikeliest of circumstances aboard a spacecraft plagued by fogged windows.

In the nascent days of the space program, the concept of space photography was largely unexplored, considered merely a subset of industrial photography. Initial images were confined to spaceships, launches, and astronaut training, all captured from the vantage point of Earth's surface.

When John Glenn ventured into orbit as the first American, photography was an afterthought. Armed with a hastily modified Ansco Autoset 35mm camera procured from a local drugstore, Glenn's every action was deemed an experiment in the unknown realms of space. In those early stages, photography was relegated to a recreational pursuit, with skepticism about the practicality of capturing meaningful images from space.

Concerns loomed over the implications of photographing other nations from orbit, as it was feared to be perceived as an act of ill will or even an act of war. However, the landscape of space photography evolved rapidly. Weather satellites revolutionized meteorology, satellites were deployed for Earth resource mapping, and intelligence-gathering responsibilities were gradually handed over from high-flying aircraft to orbiting satellites.

The paradigm shifted with NASA's lunar probes—Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter—producing a wealth of images critical for mapping Apollo's landing sites. The first lunar images in 1964, transmitted by Ranger 7, paved the way for Surveyor probes to gently land on the Moon's surface. Subsequent Lunar Orbiters meticulously mapped the Moon, contributing to the selection of potential sites for human landings.

Unmodified Hasselblad 500C medium format cameras played a pivotal role in early space missions, proving instrumental in the Mercury and Gemini programs. As Apollo missions unfolded, Apollo 8 marked a turning point. The deployment of Hasselblad EL electric cameras with automated features marked a leap in efficiency. The cameras had black anodized surfaces to minimize reflections, and astronauts, now trained in photography, used sighting rings for guidance.

Modified commercial cameras, color control patches, and synoptic surveys showcased the potential of space photography. However, technical challenges persisted, with astronauts occasionally reporting discrepancies between the colors they saw in space and those captured in photographs.

Enter the Apollo 8 mission, a pivotal step towards the historic moon landing. Amid a tightly packed schedule and technical challenges such as fogged windows and limited visibility, the astronauts found themselves face to face with an unexpected moment—Earthrise. Bill Anders, armed with intuition and a request for color film, seized the opportunity to capture the Earth rising over the moon's horizon.

The transcript reveals the improvised nature of early space photography, with astronauts adapting and experimenting with equipment on the fly. From modified cameras to stripped-down versions, the journey of NASA's photography was marked by ingenuity and quick thinking.

On Apollo 11, a comprehensive set of camera equipment, including Hasselblad cameras, a color television camera, and a black and white TV camera, captured historic moments. The lunar surface camera, a modified Hasselblad 500EL, featured a Reseau plate for calibration and unique adaptations for the lunar environment.

Post-Apollo 11, subsequent moon landings continued to utilize similar photographic equipment. Astronauts underwent rigorous training, simulating lunar traverses on Earth to familiarize themselves with camera operation. Over the years, space photography evolved from an experimental endeavor to a crucial aspect of space exploration, leaving an indelible mark on human understanding of the cosmos.

For many more incredible details about the creation of "Earthrise," please watch the amazing video above by Phil Edwards

Lee Morris's picture

Lee Morris is a professional photographer based in Charleston SC, and is the co-owner of

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Just for fun, if you're into these photos, a remarkable new book was published last year. No relationship, but from the ad copy:

Apollo Remastered: The Ultimate Photographic Record

"This definitive photographic book about the Apollo missions reveals hundreds of extraordinary, newly-restored, and all-new images from the NASA archives that provide a never-before-seen perspective on the Apollo endeavors more than 50 years after humankind first stepped foot on the moon.

"In Houston, Texas, there is a frozen vault that preserves the original NASA photographic film of the Apollo missions. For half a century, almost every image of the Moon landings publicly available was produced from a lower-quality copy of these frozen originals. Over the last few years, NASA image restorer Andy Saunders has been working hard. Taking newly available digital scans and applying pain-staking care and cutting-edge enhancement techniques, he has created the highest quality Apollo photographs ever produced. Never-before-seen spacewalks and crystal-clear portraits of astronauts in their spacecraft, along with startling new visions of the Earth and the Moon, offer astounding new insight into one of our greatest endeavors."

That is no photo.

Ben has a thing about NASA, but for other readers it was taken on 7 March, 1969 by astronaut Rusty Schweickart during the flight of Apollo 9, using a modified Hasselblad 500C and an f/2.8 80mm lens.

Flat earther?