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On the Importance of Looking Out the Side Window

One of the most famous photographs ever taken, an image which changed our perception of our place in the universe, almost didn’t happen.

The Apollo 8 mission was the first manned mission to orbit the moon. On Christmas Eve 1968, just after 1030AM Houston time, the crew of Apollo 8 were on their fourth orbit. Three times they’d witnessed the moon from a perspective that no human being until then had seen – an extraordinary spectacle in itself. But then, on the fourth time round, Mission Commander Frank Borman rotated the spacecraft by a few degrees. As he did so, his fellow astronaut Bill Anders happened to catch sight of something out of his side window that took his breath away: the blue pearl that is our planet, slowly appearing over the barren, grey, lifeless surface of the moon.

NASA had given the astronauts a strict schedule of images to capture. This unanticipated event was not one of them. Nevertheless, Bill Anders, overwhelmed by the profound spectacle, grabbed his highly modified Hasselblad 500 EL and fired off a few exposures before returning, dutifully, to the schedule.

One of those exposures was to enter history. ‘Earthrise’, as it became known, radically altered our perception of humanity’s standing in the universe. For the first time we could see how fragile, how beautiful and how lonely this planet on which we live is, amid the vast blackness of space. Indeed, some people attribute the beginning of the environmental movement to this single image.

I love this story. If the spacecraft had been on the same rotation as it was during its previous orbits then earth rise would not have been witnessed by the astronauts on board. And if Bill Anders had not had the gumption to deviate from NASA’s schedule then it would not have been witnessed by the world at large.

Throughout the creative process you should always keep one eye open to those accidental moments which throw up something infinitely more valuable than your intended objective. As you move inexorably forwards, don’t forget to steal the odd glance out of the side window.