How reliable is our memory?
Photo: Bill Anders. Source: NASA
Fifty years ago, Apollo 8 had just returned from its historic mission orbiting the moon. The three astronauts had been launched into space atop a redesigned Saturn V rocket, flew over a million miles, orbited the moon ten times, had to reenter navigational data accidentally erase by commander Frank Borman, and returned safely to Earth six days after launch. They made a live Christmas Eve telecast from space that was, at the time, the most widely-viewed television broadcast ever.
During one of the lunar orbits, the crew observed the Earth “rising” above the lunar surface – an “Earthrise.” They were awe-struck. Bill Anders, tasked with taking photos of the lunar surface at that time, asked for some color film and took the iconic “Earthrise” shot, a photograph later picked by Life magazine as one of the most important photographs of the 20th century, along with photos from the Great Depression, World War II, and dramatic newsreel images. The Earthrise photo soon became an symbol for the growing environmental movement. It didn’t hurt that, as part of a government-funded project, it’s in the public domain.
Naturally, people wanted to know who took the photograph. Because the mission schedule had been so hectic, no one was quite sure. Mission commander Borman remembered taking the camera away from Anders to snap the shot, over Anders’ objection that these types of photos weren’t part of the mission plan. That was the story told to the press and later published by National Geographic.
But later study of the flight recorder, flight transcripts, and computer simulation of the flight plan showed that Anders actually took the photo. Borman mis-remembered Anders’ chiding him over a “tourist shot” of a lunar crater a few hours earlier, along with some other “Earthrise” photos Borman actually did take later in the flight, with a wider lens. When presented with this data several decades later, Borman good-naturedly relinquished his claim to have taken the photo.
Apollo 8 stamp. Source: NASA
The story of Earthrise is an illustration of how our minds can play tricks on us. What seem like real, tangible memories can be a combination of prior events, or even what we wish had really happened. If we tell ourselves a story we eventually may come to believe it.
This should encourage us to be humble in our recollection of past events and prior experiences, especially when they’re fraught with emotion. We willingly believe what we wish to be true, as Julius Caesar observed some 2000 years ago. As we reflect over the past year and look forward to the next, let’s be honest: some of our most vivid memories may simply be stories we tell ourselves.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”