William Anders, Apollo 8 astronaut who shot ‘Earthrise,’ dies at 90 (2024)

On Christmas Eve in 1968, the three astronauts on Apollo 8 looked back toward home as their craft made one of its 10 orbits around the moon. Framed inside the window was the marbled blue orb of Earth, sitting above the slate gray lunar surface and surrounded — beautiful and vulnerable — by the blackness of space.

“Oh my God! Look at that picture over there,” said William Anders, an Air Force major at the time, on NASA’s first crew to leave the confines of Earth’s orbit. “Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.”

He asked Navy Capt. James A. Lovell Jr. to pass him a roll of color film. “Oh man,” Lovell said, in a conversation captured on the onboard recorder, “that’s great.”

The shot taken by Maj. Anders — an image later known as “Earthrise” — became one of the most significant photos of all time: a humbling, awesome and inspirational reminder of humanity’s small and fragile presence in the cosmos.

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“To me it was strange that we had worked and had come all the way to the moon to study the moon, and what we really discovered was the Earth,” recalled Maj. Anders, who died June 7 in the crash of a private plane he was piloting over waters near Jones Island in the San Juan Channel in Washington state. He was 90.

The death was confirmed by his son, Greg Anders, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. Eric Peter, the sheriff of San Juan County, said an investigation was launched into the cause of the crash of the vintage two-seat Beechcraft T-34 Mentor.

The Apollo 8 mission lifted off shortly before 8 a.m. on Dec. 21, 1968, with the giant Saturn V rocket pushing them out of earth’s orbit for the 240,000-mile journey to the moon. That had not been the original plan.

The astronauts — Maj. Anders, Lovell and commander Col. Frank Borman — had at first trained to orbit the Earth to test the lunar module, designed to bring a future crew to the moon’s surface. Maj. Anders, a specialist in space radiation, was assigned to put the module through tests.

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The final engineering work on the module was not completed in time, however. That forced NASA to make Apollo 8 a scouting party — and the first crewed mission to orbit the moon. The main task was to photograph and film the terrain, study the lunar surface composition and map out possible landing sites for the historic first steps on the moon. (On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong hopped from the ladder of the Apollo 11 lunar module to the surface of the moon, followed by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.)

Apollo 8 was fitted with a simulated lunar module, called the Lunar Module Test Article, to assess how the command craft maneuvered during lunar orbit. As part of the camera supplies was black-and-white film and several color rolls of Kodak Ektachrome, according to NASA.

For about 20 hours, the craft circled the moon. On the fourth orbit, the Earth came into perfect view. Half the Earth shines in the sun’s rays; the night side of the planet blends into the inky infinity of space. “So here was this orb looking like a Christmas tree ornament,” Maj. Anders recalled in a NASA oral history.

“As I looked down at the Earth, which is about the size of your fist at arm’s length, I’m thinking, ‘This is not a very big place. Why can’t we get along?’” Maj. Anders said in a video played to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission in 2018.

The Apollo 8 flight capped a year of staggering turmoil. In the United States, racial and political tensions boiled over in violence over the Vietnam War and the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy. In Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia was the latest Soviet bloc to suffer the Kremlin’s wrath to put down a pro-freedom uprising.

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Maj. Anders’s photo, released by NASA in the final days of 1968, instantly became a powerful counterpoint for unity and reflection. The image was used in a 1969 U.S. postage stamp and reproduced on posters and pop art. “Earthrise” also helped advance the environmental movement by inspiring the creation of Earth Day in 1970.

In 2003, the image was on the cover of Life magazine’s collection of “100 Photographs That Changed the World.” (Maj. Anders jokingly called “Earthrise” a “crappy photo” because he considered it slightly out of focus.)

“He traveled to the threshold of the Moon and helped all of us see something else: ourselves,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson wrote in a social media post after Maj. Anders’s death.

At the end of a Christmas Eve television broadcast by the Apollo 8 crew — watched by more than 500 million people around the world — the astronauts took turns reading the opening biblical passage from the Book of Genesis. Maj. Anders was first: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

William Alison Anders was born on Oct. 17, 1933, in Hong Kong, then a British colony, where his mother lived while his father, a Navy lieutenant, served aboard a gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River in China.

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The family then lived in Annapolis, Md., before returning to Asia. His father, Lt. Arthur Anders, was second-in-command of the gunboat Panay, which helped evacuate Americans after Japan sharply escalated its battles with China in July 1937 in the Sino-Japanese War.

The young William and his mother fled to the Philippines. Japanese warplanes targeted the Panay, wounding the elder Anders and inflicting so much damage to the vessel that it began to sink. Lt. Anders helped evacuate the crew and received the Navy Cross for valor.

The younger Anders graduated from the Naval Academy in 1955 but later obtained an Air Force commission. He served as a fighter pilot in California and Iceland, tracking Soviet aircraft. In 1962, he received a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, specializing in space radiation, from the Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio. He was selected by NASA for astronaut training a year later.

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Maj. Anders retired from NASA and the Air Force in 1969 and became executive secretary of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, a presidential advisory unit. He served as U.S. ambassador to Norway from May 1976 to June 1977.

He had stints in the private sector, including as the chief executive of General Dynamics Corp., an aerospace and defense company, before he retired to Washington state and took up racing aircraft. He retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1988 as a major general.

In a 2018 interview with the Guardian, Maj. Anders said “Earthrise” changed him, too. “It really undercut my religious beliefs. The idea that things rotate around the pope and up there is a big supercomputer wondering whether Billy was a good boy yesterday? It doesn’t make any sense.”

He married the former Valerie Hoard in 1955. In addition to his wife and their son Greg, survivors include three other sons, Alan, Glen, and Eric; and two daughters, Gayle and Diana. (Maj. Anders and his wife founded the Heritage Flight Museum, now located in Burlington, Wash.)

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Twenty-two years after Maj. Anders’s photo, the astronomer Carl Sagan suggested to NASA that the Voyager 1 space probe turn its camera back to Earth for a parting image from the fringes of the solar system from about 4 billion miles away. Earth is nothing more than a pinprick.

The two perspectives of our planet — Anders’s view from orbiting the moon and the “Pale Blue Dot” as Sagan called it — reinforced with images what poets always recognized: the Earth as a shared cocoon in the merciless heavens.

‘To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats,” wrote the poet Archibald MacLeish in a commentary in the New York Times on Christmas Day 1968, “is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold.”

William Anders, Apollo 8 astronaut who shot ‘Earthrise,’ dies at 90 (2024)

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