Climate Action

The Photo That Captured the World

On Christmas Eve, 1968, the Apollo 8 crew was drifting through what seemed like an infinite inky night, as the first humans in history to orbit the Moon. The three crew members on-board were taking photographs of the craggy lunar landscape while scouting the Moon’s surface for potential landing sites for future Apollo missions. 

William Anders, the youngest astronaut in the crew, was sitting by the right window as the ship rounded the edge of the Moon. Suddenly, on the horizon a blue ball appeared and Anders, awestruck, gasped “Oh my God, look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty!”

He anxiously called for some color film to capture what would become a history-defining moment, ensuring that even though Anders was the first person to see the Earthrise, he most certainly would not be the last. 

Last week, on June 7th of 2024, Will Anders passed away in a tragic plane crash. He was a fighter pilot as well as an astronaut, logging more than 6,000 hours of flight time, but the 90-year-old Anders will be immortalized because of the “Earthrise” photo he took that Christmas Eve night. EARTHDAY.ORG and the rest of the world will be forever grateful to him for this image and its tremendous contribution to the environmental movement. Nature photographer Galen Rowell would go on to describe it as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

“Earthrise” was the first color image of the Earth, seen from outer space, ever taken. It was the very first time in history that humanity was  able to see what our home planet looked like. Anders captured the Earth floating above the Moon’s surface, a tiny blue orb drowning in the vast darkness of space. Peering at the world from this previously unseen perspective, Anders reflected that “Earth is small, delicate and not the center of the universe.” 

Apollo 8’s “Earthrise” photo sparked a modern Copernican revolution of sorts when Anders and his crewmates returned home, splashing down on December 27th. While the Earth may feel vast, expansive, and blessed with what seems like endless resources, to see the world from this epic 200,000 million mile bird’s-eye view is a humbling experience. We could see how wondrous Earth truly is, and perhaps, how vulnerable it is as well. 

Anders described the rising Earth as “a Christmas tree ornament, very fragile…[and seemingly of] a physical insignificance and yet it was our home…” The smallness of the Earth in relation to the universe emphasizes the duty we all share in caring for our one and only home in the face of a cold and infinite universe.

The photo was a catalyst for the founding of the modern environmental movement, and just over one year after “Earthrise” the world celebrated its first Earth Day. 20 million inspired Americans, 10% of the country’s population at the time, participated in demonstrations protesting and spreading awareness about environmental degradation. By the end of the year, the United States government created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed trailblazing environmental legislation like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Education Act, and more. 

William Anders and his photograph lives on through the environmental movement and the ever-growing participation and importance of Earth Day. When the environmental movement faced the dark and challenging dilemma of a global pandemic just weeks before the 50th Earth Day, Earthrise became a beacon of hope to lead environmentalists through a time where taking action felt harder than ever. Earthrise showed that on this island Earth, the only way forward through global crises is to unite for the common good in support of the one planet we all call home.

William Anders’ legacy serves as an inspiration and a constant reminder of our responsibility to protect this fragile planet we call home. His Earthrise photograph showed that sharing a meaningful image can lead to a profound impact. You can be part of the Earth Day impact by joining our email list, and we’ll keep you updated on critical news and actions you can take for the environment.