Get extra lift from AOPA. Start your free membership trial today! Click here

Astronaut who captured 'Earthrise' mourned

William Anders was flying T–34

Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. William Anders, whose iconic photograph of the Earth rising over the moon as seen from aboard Apollo 8 in 1968 awakened the world to humanity's place in the cosmos, died June 7 when the Beechcraft T–34 Mentor he was flying hit the water not far from his home in Washington state. He was 90.

Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders prepares for the iconic flight in 1968. NASA photo.

Various news outlets posted video (taken by Phillip Person) of Anders's T–34 flying inverted, then diving toward the water between Orcas Island and Jones Island. According to FlightAware ADS-B data, Anders departed Skagit Regional Airport, where the aviation museum he founded is located, at 11:17 a.m. Pacific time. The flight lasted 22 minutes, ending when the aircraft struck the water just after the nose appeared to climb above the horizon, and broke apart.

Anders—who circled the moon on December 24, 1968, with fellow astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell—recalled taking the iconic photo that gave rise to Earth Day and propelled the modern environmental movement in an interview with NASA Chief Scientist and Climate Advisor Katherine Calvin.

"It was like a fragile Christmas tree ornament," Anders recalled. "I thought to myself, it's too bad we don't treat it more like a Christmas tree ornament."

The spacecraft made the first of its 10 lunar orbits facing away from Earth, then turned to reveal the stunning sight. Anders recalled that the view of the rising Earth prompted a scramble to reload his Hasselblad camera with color film; in recorded video from the flight, Lovell can be heard urging Anders to make sure to get the picture. Anders took several frames, adjusting the camera settings between each because he didn't have a meter to measure the exposure. He assured Lovell that he had secured the image, "then really didn't think much about it."

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson posted a tribute on social media hours after Anders's death was confirmed, featuring the iconic photo: "Bill Anders offered to humanity among the deepest of gifts an astronaut can give. He traveled to the threshold of the Moon and helped all of us see something else: ourselves. He embodied the lessons and the purpose of exploration. We will miss him."

Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders captured this photo dubbed 'Earthrise' on December 24, 1968. The image raised awareness of Earth's fragility and propelled the modern environmental movement. NASA photo.

Anders, an accomplished pilot who retired from the Air Force reserves in 1988 after 33 years as a commissioned officer, held several prominent positions in and out of government following Apollo 8. He was appointed chairman and CEO of General Dynamics Corp. in 1991, continuing a long career that included posts and positions such as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and ambassador to Norway.

After retiring from General Dynamics (following a successful turnaround of the company), Anders and his wife, Valerie, moved to Orcas Island in Washington state in 1993. The couple raised six children (who gave them 13 grandchildren), and established the Heritage Flight Museum in 1996, building a collection around the North American P–51 Mustang Val-Halla, which Anders raced in the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. According to the museum website, Anders also flew Val-Halla to a Gathering of Mustangs and Legends event in 1997, during which he flew the Mustang in formation with a U.S. Air Force F–15E, flown by his son, Greg, a moment captured in an image that was incorporated into the museum's logo.

Anders raced Val-Halla in 1997, taking third place in the Silver class on a challenging day, and purchased a Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat (which had raced in the first Reno races in 1964), which he named Wampus Cat and raced, along with Val-Halla, in 1998, and 1999, running in the Bronze and Silver finals.

Official portrait of William Anders, part of NASA's third class of astronauts. NASA photo.

William Alison Anders was born October 17, 1933, in Hong Kong, while his father, Lt. Arthur Anders, was serving in the U.S. Navy. Anders followed his father into the Navy, graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1955. He obtained an officer's commission in the Air Force, "viewing it as more attuned than the Navy to breakthroughs in aeronautical science," the New York Times noted in an obituary. He flew fighters in interceptor squadrons tasked with defending the country against Soviet nuclear bombers and earned a master's degree in nuclear engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in Ohio in 1962. He was selected with the third class of NASA astronauts in 1963 and became a specialist in space radiation study.

Apollo 8, the first mission to fly the Saturn V rocket, was originally scheduled to orbit Earth and test the lunar lander, with Anders flying the fragile craft, but NASA changed the plan to move up lunar orbit, flying to the moon in "a premature and risky bid to beat the Russians in circling the lunar surface," the Times noted. "The mission was a huge success."

Anders would later note in the NASA interview that he might have become a footnote in history, had he not taken the iconic photo of Earth. "It makes people think, you know, about this fragile little ball we live on."

Jim Moore
Jim Moore
Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: People

Related Articles