obituary of Willem Anders

It may be that the most famous photo from the American space program is not the shot of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, but the image of the Earth seen above the moon’s horizon, an image taken from space on December 24, 1968. the crew was passed on. of Apollo 8 – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders.

It was Anders, who has died aged 90, who took the ‘Earthrise’ photo, which was not part of the mission’s planned protocol. And it was he who first read from the Book of Genesis during their live broadcast from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” he read. “And the earth was formless and void; and darkness was over the face of the deep.”

Anders later spoke about the ecological impact of the image, contributing to a shift in perspective articulated by the poet Archibald MacLeish in the New York Times the next day, Christmas Day. The photo allowed us, MacLeish wrote, “to see the earth as it really is, small blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats.”

Although Anders was not the household name of some of the better-known astronauts, he had one of the most influential careers outside the space program after Apollo 8, both in government service and as a business manager for contractors in the defense and aerospace industries.

All three Apollo 8 crew members were among those recruited in the wake of the original success of the seven “Right Stuff” Mercury astronauts. Anders applied to join the third class of space pilots in 1963 and was assigned the crucial mission, which became the linchpin of the American space effort.

The success of Apollo 8, which occurred at a time when the entire rationale for the “space race” was being questioned, reinvigorated NASA and paved the way for humans to set foot on the moon.

The year before, however, the mission had suffered disaster between the US and Soviet space programs. In January 1967, the Apollo 1 capsule burst into flames on the launch pad, killing three astronauts. In April, the parachute of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov’s Soyuz 1 craft failed to open upon reentry, and he crashed to his death. The race to the moon continued, but both unmanned flights around the moon sent by the Soviets in 1968 failed. NASA recovered with the testing of a new Saturn V rocket (which would eventually launch Apollo 8 into space) and, in October 1968, the eleven-day Earth orbit of Apollo 7. The stage was set for Apollo 8, which , after a journey of 66 hours and 230,000 miles, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve. The crew was the first human to see the dark side of the moon.

Bill was the prototypical all-American boy, despite being born in Hong Kong, where his father, Arthur “Tex” Anders, was a naval lieutenant aboard a gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River. The boy Bill and his mother, Muriel (née Adams), fled China when the Japanese attacked Nanjing. During the attack, his father’s boat came under Japanese fire. With the captain seriously injured, Tex wounded himself, took command and repelled the Japanese, earning the Navy Cross.

Back in the US, where he attended Grossmont High School in San Diego County, California, Bill grew up in the astronaut model. He earned the Life Scout rankings, the second highest in Boy Scouts, and was subsequently appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. After graduating in 1955, however, he transferred to the Air Force, drawn by the lure of flying and the prospect of faster advancement through the newest military services.

He married Valerie Hoard, whom he had met shortly after graduation in Annapolis, and was assigned to fly interceptors for the Air Defense Command, protecting against Soviet bomber attacks.

Anders was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and studied for a master’s degree in nuclear engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology. He would later play a major role in the fundraising that made the founding of Wright State University possible.

His experience with reactor shielding and radiation effects at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in New Mexico was a key factor in his selection as an astronaut; he became responsible for researching the effects of radiation on the space capsules and their crews.

After serving as a backup pilot for the Apollo 11 mission, Anders left NASA to serve as executive secretary of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, the president’s advisory board. In 1973, he was appointed to the Atomic Energy Commission and later chaired the Joint US-USSR Nuclear Fission and Fusion Energy Exchange Program. When nuclear regulations were reorganized in 1975, President Gerald Ford appointed him the first chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. When his term ended, Anders, of Norwegian descent, was appointed ambassador to Norway.

He left the government service in 1977, served as a member of the American Enterprise Institute think tank, and then joined General Electric (GE) as general manager of their nuclear products division. After a stint at Harvard Business School’s advanced management program, GE put him in charge of their aircraft equipment division. He left in 1984 to take charge of the aerospace operations of the Textron conglomerate, rising to senior executive vice president in charge of the company’s operations.

In 1990, he became vice chairman of General Dynamics, another major aerospace contractor, and was named chairman and chief executive the following year. To hire him, General Dynamics had to agree to let Anders serve as an assistant test pilot for the F-16 fighter they were developing for the Air Force.

Anders retired as a major general from the Air Force Reserve in 1988 and from industry in 1994. In 1996, he founded the Heritage Flight Museum in Washington State. He flew his own planes in races and at air shows, and at various times held six flying records. He and Borman, a particular fan of the World War II P-51 Mustang, which re-entered Earth’s atmosphere in 1968 at a speed of 25,000 miles per hour, showed off their propeller-driven Mustangs side by side.

Anders was flying a Beech A45 when the plane crashed near the San Juan Islands in Washington state. He died in the crash.

He is survived by Valerie, four sons, Alan, Glen, Greg and Eric, and two daughters, Gayle and Diana.

• William Allison Anders, astronaut and businessman, born October 17, 1933; died June 7, 2024

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