Remembering Apollo 8 Astronaut Bill Anders

Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, who took the iconic “Earthrise” photo of our home planet from the Moon in 1968, was killed on June 7, 2024. Anders was flying alone in his Beechcraft T-34 Mentor aircraft  when the plane plunged into the waters off the San Juan Islands in Washington state. Anders was 90.

“At every step of Bill’s life was the iron will of a pioneer, the grand passion of a visionary, the cool skill of a pilot, and the heart of an adventurer who explored on behalf of all of us,” said NASA Administrator Bill in Nelson in a statement. “His impact will live on through the generations. All of NASA, and all of those who look up into the twinkling heavens and see grand new possibilities of dazzling new dreams, will miss a great hero who has passed on.”

A video of the accident taken by a bystander who witnessed the crash appears to show Anders failing to pull up at the bottom of a loop, with the plane impacting the water at high speed.

His family issued a statement that they were devastated. “He was a great pilot and we will miss him terribly,” they said.

After becoming a fighter pilot in the Air Force, Anders was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 1964. He was backup pilot for the Gemini XI and Apollo 11 flights, and he was lunar module pilot for Apollo 8, the first mission with humans on board to enter lunar orbit.  

During the first three orbits around the Moon, the Apollo 8 crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders kept the Apollo Command Module’s windows pointing down toward the surface of the Moon while they hurriedly filmed and photographed the craters and mountains below. One of their main tasks was reconnaissance for future Apollo landings.

The Earth rising over the Moon’s surface, as seen by the Apollo 8 mission. Credit: NASA

On the fourth swing around from the Moon’s farside, Borman rolled the spacecraft to a different orientation, pointing the windows toward the horizon to get a navigational fix. A few minutes later, Anders spotted a blue and white object appearing over the Moon’s horizon, a heart-catching sight of planet Earth, a “grand oasis in the vast loneliness of space,” as Lovell later described it.

“Oh my God, look at that picture over there!” Anders said. “There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!” Anders called for Lovell to quickly grab some color film.

Apollo 8’s flight was a bold and unexpected move by NASA to send a crew to lunar orbit, but the audacious flight in December 1968 set the stage for the Apollo 11 Moon landing seven months later. Apollo 8 also capped off a turbulent year on Earth, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the escalating Vietnam War and anti-war protests that led to violence, and an intensifying Cold War with the USSR. After the Apollo 8 crew returned home, a well-wisher sent a telegram to the crew, saying that they had saved 1968.

Apollo 8 crew. Credit: NASA

The Earthrise photo has been called one of the most important images ever taken.

On Earth Day in 2008, Anders reflected on the famous picture that’s become one of the most frequently used images ever. Anders said even though it wasn’t in the original flight plan to take pictures of Earth, it didn’t take much time for him to realize how striking this view of the Earth was, and quickly snapped the celebrated image.

“I instantly thought it was ironic; we had come all this way to study the moon, and yet it was this view of the Earth that was one of the most important events for Apollo,” said Anders in an interview on NASA TV.

“There are basically two messages that came to me,” Anders said of the picture. “One of them is that the planet is quite fragile. It reminded me of a Christmas tree ornament. But the other message to me, and I don’t think this one has really sunk in yet, is that the Earth is really small. We’re not the center of the universe; we’re way out in left field on a tiny dust mote, but it is our home and we need to take care of it.”

Anders said it didn’t take long after the crew had returned home for this photograph to become iconic for the environmental movement.

Earthrise in the original orientation that was seen by the Apollo 8 astronauts. Image credit: NASA

“Back in the 60’s, it gave us a sense that the world was a place we all shared together,” Anders said. “We couldn’t see any boundaries from space.”

Anders left NASA in 1969 to become the executive secretary of the National Aeronautics and Space Council. In 1973, he was appointed to the Atomic Energy Commission, where he led all nuclear and non-nuclear power research and development. Later, he was named the U.S. chairman of the technology exchange program for nuclear fission and fusion power with the Soviet Union.

In 1975, Anders was named the first chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. At the end of his term, he was appointed as the U.S. Ambassador to Norway, a position he held until 1977.

Anders served on several organizational boards and joined General Electric as its vice president and the general manager of its nuclear products division and later the general manager of GE’s aircraft equipment division. Then he became vice chairman of General Dynamics and, in 1991, its chairman and chief executive officer. He retired as CEO in 1993 and the left the company in 1994.

Anders retired from the Air Force reserves in 1988 with the rank of major general.

In retirement, Anders  and his family founded the Heritage Flight Museum in Washington state, which features a variety of aircraft, several antique military vehicles, a library and many artifacts donated by veterans, according to the museum’s website.

The National Transportation Safety Board and FAA are investigating the crash that killed Anders.

“Bill Anders forever changed our perspective of our planet and ourselves with his famous Earthrise photo on Apollo 8,” said retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, who is now a US Senator from Arizona Senator.  “He inspired me and generations of astronauts and explorers. My thoughts are with his family and friends.”

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004, and has published over 6,000 articles on space exploration, astronomy, science and technology. She is the author of two books: "Eight Years to the Moon: the History of the Apollo Missions," (2019) which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible; and "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" (2016) tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond. Follow Nancy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Nancy_A and and Instagram at and https://www.instagram.com/nancyatkinson_ut/

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