William Anders, astronaut on the first lunar orbit mission that photographed ‘Earthrise’ – obituary

William Anders, who has died aged 90, was an American astronaut who flew on what is often considered NASA’s most daring space mission; as a crew member of Apollo 8, he became one of the first three men to travel to the moon, where they spent a day in orbit and captured humanity’s first close-up view of humanity’s battered lunar surface.

Anders, the photographer was on board the flight and captured the historic photo of the blue-and-white Earth rising above the barren gray surface of the moon – an iconic image that is credited with sparking the environmental movement.

Although their lunar circumnavigation was overshadowed seven months later by the first moon landing (Apollo 11), Apollo 8 made perhaps the most challenging journey, and it was certainly the essential preparation. It was only the second Apollo flight and was originally planned to test NASA’s brand new lunar landing module in the relative safety of close Earth orbit. However, the lander, beset by technical problems, was not yet ready to fly.

Adding to NASA’s fears, the Soviet Union had safely sent the Zond 5 crew capsule to the moon and back, albeit with only animals on board (including two turtles). A Russian manned flight around the moon was clearly imminent.

Earthrise, created on Christmas Eve 1968 by William Anders for NASA

Earthrise, taken on Christmas Eve 1968 by William Anders – Heritage Space/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Wanting to prevent their Cold War enemy from breaking another space record, the Americans made the bold decision to send Anders and his crew to the moon without the originally planned lunar module. This would have provided the safety net of a dual engine and life support if something went wrong – a facility that would later save the lives of the Apollo 13 crew on the moon.

On December 21, 1968, Anders, along with two highly experienced fellow astronauts, Commander Frank Borman and Command Module Pilot James Lovell, lay in the cramped Apollo 8 capsule atop their steaming black-and-white Saturn V rocket at Cape Kennedy. Newcomer Anders was so relaxed about the impending launch – only the third flight of the American giant Saturn V and the first with a crew on board – that he fell asleep during the countdown.

The largest rocket ever built took off from Florida with a shattering roar that startled onlookers, including the astronauts’ families, as they watched three miles away. After a brief check while in orbit, the engine restarted and accelerated to an unprecedented speed of 40,000 km per hour towards the moon. The human altitude record, then 850 miles, was quickly broken as they began their 145,000-mile journey.

The gigantic Saturn V rocket blasts offThe gigantic Saturn V rocket blasts off

The giant Saturn V rocket blasts off – Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images

The crew, with Anders as cameraman, broadcast the first black-and-white television images showing the Earth hanging like a ball in the black void, surprising Earth viewers. Their home planet quickly shrank into the cabin window and after a three-day journey the crew fired their engine to successfully enter lunar orbit. They were the first humans to be captured by the gravity of a planetary body other than Earth.

Anders had trained to fly the lunar lander, but because he didn’t have a device ready, he was assigned the role of mission photographer. During their fourth revolution of the moon, Anders saw an extraordinary sight that they had missed three times before: the colorful Earth rising above the lunar wasteland. Moving between the windows as the craft slowly rotated, he captured several images that would be endlessly reproduced in publications around the world.

Later he would reflect: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing we discovered is the Earth.”

The crew had quietly planned to celebrate their historic achievement with a solemn speech from lunar orbit, but now, staring at the bleak crater mountains, the words failed them. Instead, they chose to take turns reading from the book of Genesis. As the sun set on Apollo 8 during their ninth orbit, Anders read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep….”

The words, broadcast a quarter of a million miles to Earth from the three most remote human beings in history as they plunged through the moon’s dark shadow on Christmas Eve, had an extraordinary resonance with Earth-bound viewers.

But the gesture also sparked outrage and a lawsuit from militant atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who alleged separation of church and state and that NASA’s budget should not promote the Bible. The US Supreme Court later rejected this, citing a lack of jurisdiction over the location of the offending lecture.

Anders, 1968Anders, 1968

Anders, 1968 – ullstein photo via Getty Images

Their perilous mission ended with a lightning-fast reentry and a pre-dawn splashdown in the Pacific Ocean north of New Zealand. It effectively marked the end of the moon race with the USSR.

William (“Bill”) Alison Anders was born on October 17, 1933 in Hong Kong, where his father Arthur, a lieutenant in the US Navy, was stationed with his wife Muriel, née Adams.

When Bill was four, Arthur Anders became the hero of the infamous ‘USS Panay Incident’ when Japanese planes provocatively attacked his Navy gunboat on the Yangtze River in China. Suffering a shrapnel wound to the throat, he was forced to issue written orders when his ship sank, earning him the Navy Cross and Purple Heart.

The family returned to California, where young Bill was educated in El Cajon and San Diego, followed by the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. After graduating, he transferred to the U.S. Air Force, getting his wings in 1956 and flying interceptors from California and Iceland – the latter to counter Soviet bombers that were challenging American air defenses.

Anders joined NASA in 1963 as part of the third class of astronauts. Apollo 8 was his only space flight, and after serving as backup to Michael Collins on the Apollo 11 moon landing, he left the agency in 1969. He subsequently led the National Aeronautics and Space Council and advised the U.S. president on space policy .

He subsequently became chairman of national nuclear bodies and was appointed ambassador to Norway, after which he went on to have a successful and rewarding career in engineering and aviation.

Anders (2004): a lunar crater was named after himAnders (2004): a lunar crater was named after him

Anders (2004): a lunar crater was named after him – AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

In 1970, the ban on naming lunar features after living individuals was briefly suspended in the case of Anders and his colleagues, as well as the crew of the first moon landing, Apollo 11. A 25-mile-wide crater on the far side of the moon is now called Otherwise.

An avid pilot, he was piloting a small plane alone yesterday when it crashed in the waters near the San Juan Islands, Washington state.

Anders married Valerie Hoard in 1955 and they had four sons and two daughters. Latterly he settled in Washington State.

William Anders, born October 17, 1933, died June 7, 2024

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