On Christmas Eve of 1968, three men captivated the American public as they became the first humans to orbit the moon and snapped what would become one of the most iconic images of the modern era.
Tuesday marked the 45th anniversary of "Earthrise" — a dramatic color photo of the Earth rising over the lunar surface, with the blackness of outer space as a backdrop — which was taken by astronaut Bill Anders and beamed back to Earth as he and the other two astronauts on the Apollo 8 lunar orbit mission took turns speaking to an enthralled, spellbound nation.
One of those astronauts, and the mission's commander, lives in the Billings area and said on Tuesday that it's still tough to describe the feeling of what he and the two others — Anders and Jim Lovell — on the mission saw.
"We were coming around on the revolution on Christmas Eve and we looked up over the lunar surface and there was the Earth," said Frank Borman. "The Earth was so beautiful with all of the different colors. I think all three of us were totally enraptured."
While the moment wasn't expected, the mission's success was. Borman said that, while the three astronauts blasted off on Dec. 21 before circling the moon 10 times three days later and heading home, the week-long mission was the culmination of years of hard work, planning and preparation.
Fueled by competition with the Soviet Union and a challenge from President John F. Kennedy to land on the moon by the end of the decade, America threw huge amounts of resources into its space program.
Being the first to orbit the moon with Apollo 8 was the product of much of that work.
"Four hundred thousand Americans worked on that project," Borman said. "The three astronauts got most of that credit but a lot of people worked on it and deserve most of it. Everything worked perfect. They made our jobs easy."
It was also the first time live TV images of the lunar surface were shown to the public.
After sharing the images, the crew took turns reading aloud from the Book of Genesis before Borman closed with one final message.
"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth," he said.
The Apollo 8 mission wasn't Borman's first time in space. A career Air Force officer, he moved into a role with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and was a member of Gemini 7, a two-week Earth orbital mission, in 1965.
While on the Apollo 8 mission, the astronauts were focused on their jobs and didn't think too much about the historic significance of what they were doing or the images they captured.
"It was very gratifying," Borman said. "It was a mission for us. The only time for reflection was when we were looking back at the Earth."
However, that view and the famous photograph almost didn't happen, as it was just by chance that they came across the scene and happened to scan the horizon.
In their space craft, the astronauts were focused on the lunar surface, taking pictures of the landscape. Borman began to reposition the craft in order get another look when Earth popped up in the distance.
"We were rotating the space craft to see something else on the moon when that came up," he said. "We didn't expect that."
While Anders' photo is the most widely-known, the Apollo 8 crew took a number of photos of the Earth rising. Borman has a copy of a black and white one he snapped hanging in his hangar at Billings Logan International Airport.
After retiring from NASA, Borman entered the private sector, eventually serving as president and CEO of Eastern Airlines and has served on the Home Depot board of directors.
He and his wife moved to the Billings area about 15 years ago. Now in his 80s, Borman continues to fly and maintains a hangar at the airport.
He still follows NASA and global space efforts closely. He said he's honored to have been a part of an important time in American history, a time when almost anything seemed possible and the public was enamored with space travel, and is eager to see where it goes from here.
"People are up there doing a space walk today, right now," he said. "The mission continues, the work continues. It's becoming a place to work and live."