Bill Anders, Apollo 8 astronaut who took the iconic ‘Earthrise’ photo, dies in plane crash

Bill Anders, the Apollo 8 astronaut who was one of the first humans to orbit the moon and who took the iconic first photo of the Earth rising above the moon’s surface, died Friday when a plane he was piloting crashed near the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State. He was 90.

He was flying alone when the plane, a Beechcraft T-34 Mentor, crashed into the water near Roche Harbor, Washington, around 11:40 a.m., the Federal Aviation Administration said.

“The family is devastated,” his son, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Anders, told the Associated Press. “He was a great pilot and we will miss him terribly.”

After a search involving helicopters and boats, a state dive team recovered the pilot’s body, said Petty Officer Annika Hirschler, spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard.

The crash is being investigated by the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Three astronauts in their space suits

Bill Anders, center, with Apollo 8 crew members Jim Lovell, left, and Frank Borman before their 1968 mission. (NASA)

On December 24, 1968, Anders and two other astronauts aboard Apollo 8, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, became the first humans to orbit the moon. Anders famously read from the Book of Genesis during a live Christmas Eve broadcast from space.

Anders and his crew were also the first people to witness the blue Earth rising above the gray surface of the moon.

As the spacecraft spun, Anders looked out the side window and took pictures as the Earth emerged from behind the moon.

“Oh, my God, look at that picture there!” he exclaimed in a recorded conversation. “That’s where the earth comes up. Wow, is that beautiful!”

That moment, captured on film, was the iconic photo “Earthrise.” The image fascinated people around the world and became a profound symbol of the environmental movement, showing the fragility of life on Earth in the vastness of space.

Read more: Capturing the big picture on Earth Day

Anders said later, looking from the spacecraft, Earth seemed like “a fragile Christmas tree decoration. And I thought to myself, you know, it’s a shame that we don’t treat it like a Christmas tree decoration anymore.”

The photo has had a major influence on society. Based on the perspective captured in the photo, environmentalists organized the first Earth Day in 1970.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Anders “offered humanity one of the greatest gifts an astronaut can give.”

“He traveled to the threshold of the moon and helped us all see something else: ourselves. He embodied the lessons and purpose of exploration. We will miss him,” Nelson wrote in a social media post.

The International Astronomical Union commemorated the photo’s taking in 2018 by naming one of the moon’s craters Anders’ Earthrise.

In a NASA video interview in his later years, Anders reflected on how seeing the Earth from that perspective influenced his thinking about people and the planet.

Read more: A small world for the Apollo crews

“It’s really a shame, you know, we’re shooting rockets and missiles and things at each other in this little place we call home. It is the only home in the universe for us humans,” he said. “It’s a shame that we don’t deal with it a little better.”

When he captured the image with a Hasselblad camera, he saw the Earth appear not above the moon, but to the side of it. In the original orientation of the photo, the moon is on the right. But the image is typically framed with the moon’s surface at the bottom, making it appear as if the Earth is rising.

In an interview, Anders said the photo “gave impetus to the environmental movement.”

“It helped us make the point that the Earth is not only fragile and vulnerable, but also very finite,” he said. “All the views of the Earth from the moon have made the human race…realize that we are all together on one tiny little planet. And we better treat the country and ourselves better, or we won’t be here long.”

The lunar module pilot on the Apollo 8 mission was different. In a 1997 interview about the space program, he said that before his flight he had guessed that there was “one in three chance that we would have a successful mission.”

William A. Anders was born in Hong Kong in 1933 to a military family. His father was a US naval officer.

Anders attended Grossmont High School in El Cajon in San Diego County. He attended the Naval Academy and then was commissioned into the Air Force.

He retired from the Air Force Reserve as a major general. But he never stopped flying, even decades after returning from space.

Bill Anders stands next to an airplane.Bill Anders stands next to an airplane.

Different at San Diego County’s Ramona Airport in 2006. (John Gastald / San Diego Union-Tribune)

After Apollo, Anders built a career spanning the public and private sectors. Known for his gruff manner and exacting attention to detail, he served as executive secretary of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, a commissioner on the Atomic Energy Commission and the first chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Later followed stints as ambassador to Norway, vice president of General Electric Co. and executive vice president at Textron Inc. In the early 1990s, he was chairman and chief executive of General Dynamics, where he oversaw belt-tightening at the defense contractor.

In 1996, Anders and his wife co-founded the Heritage Flight Museum, now located next to Skagit Regional Airport in Burlington, Washington. In early October, Anders and his son Greg – who is now the museum’s executive director – flew a pair of T-34 aircraft in a formation demonstration above the museum.

Anders and his wife Valerie divided their time between Washington and the community of Point Loma in San Diego. He is survived by six children and over a dozen grandchildren.

Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, a former astronaut, said Anders’ ‘Earthrise’ photo “forever changed our perspective on our planet and ourselves.”

“He inspired me and generations of astronauts and explorers. My thoughts are with his family and friends,” Kelly wrote in a social media post.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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