Humans first orbited the Moon on this day in 1968, and while on their first pass around the backside of the Moon, they first saw with their own eyes Earthrise over the horizon.
Apollo 8 launched on December 21st and marked the first time humans would be sent further than low Earth orbit. After a three day trip to get to the Moon, the crew of Apollo 8 was preparing to go around the backside of the Moon for the first time. Behind there, they would need to perform one of the most important task of the mission, firing the main engine to capture themselves in a lunar orbit.
The kicker, they would be out of contact with mission control during the time, and mission control wouldn’t know how it went until after they emerged from behind the Moon. Luckily if it failed (as long as it wasn’t catastrophic), the crew would return to Earth since they weren’t going fast enough to leave its orbit. As we know, the burn was successful, and afterwards they prepared to see the Earth begin to rise over the horizon of the Moon.
This actually wasn’t the first time an “Earthrise” photo was taken, Lunar Orbiter 1 took the first image of it after being the first satellite to gain orbit around the Moon in 1966. It was a much lower quality image and stuck in black and white, so now that humans were on board with 70 mm Hasselblad camera equipped with color film, we were able to capture much higher quality photos. Frank Borman, was actually the first one to see it and took a similar photo but in black and white since he was using the camera primarily to photograph the surface of the Moon.
While it’s been over 52 years since we got see this scene for the first time with human eyes, we still get to enjoy the photos they brought back with them and can look forward to our return to the Moon in future years to capture this photo once more with high res digital cameras for all to see.