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William Anders, Apollo 8 astronaut who took Earthrise photo, killed in plane crash

Retired major-general William Anders, the former Apollo 8 astronaut who took the iconic Earthrise photo showing the planet as a shadowed blue marble from space in 1968, was killed Friday when the plane he was piloting alone plummeted into the waters off the San Juan Islands in Washington state. He was 90.

His son, retired air force lieutenant-colonel Greg Anders, confirmed the death to The Associated Press.

“The family is devastated,” he said. “He was a great pilot and we will miss him terribly.”

William Anders has said the photo was his most significant contribution to the space program, given the ecological philosophical impact it had, along with making sure the Apollo 8 command module and service module worked.

WATCH | Earthrise, 50 years later: 

50th anniversary of Bill Anders’ iconic ‘Earthrise’ photo

This Christmas Eve marks the 50th anniversary of the iconic “Earthrise” photo, taken from lunar orbit by astronaut Bill Anders. Here’s the story behind the powerful image.

The photograph, the first colour image of Earth from space, is one of the most important photos in modern history for the way it changed how humans viewed the planet. The photo is credited with sparking the global environmental movement for showing how delicate and isolated Earth appeared from space.

NASA administrator and former senator Bill Nelson said Anders embodied the lessons and the purpose of exploration.

“He travelled to the threshold of the Moon and helped all of us see something else: ourselves,” Nelson wrote on the social platform X, formerly Twitter.

Anders snapped the photo during the crew’s fourth orbit of the moon, frantically switching from black-and-white to colour film.

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“Oh my God, look at that picture over there!” Anders said. “There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!”

The Apollo 8 mission in December 1968 was the first human spaceflight to leave low-Earth orbit and travel to the moon and back. At the time, it was NASA’s boldest and perhaps most dangerous voyage and one that set the stage for the Apollo moon landing seven months later.

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

Apollo 8 astronaut William Ander is seen being helped from the bobbing Apollo 8 spacecraft after returning to Earth in 1968.
Anders is helped from the bobbing Apollo 8 spacecraft after it returned to Earth and landed in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 27, 1968. (NASA/AFP/Getty Images)

A report came in around 11:40 a.m. local time that an older-model plane crashed into the water and sank near the north end of Jones Island, San Juan County Sheriff Eric Peter said. Greg Anders confirmed to KING-TV that his father’s body was recovered Friday afternoon.

Only the pilot was on board the Beech A45 airplane at the time, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Association, which is investigating the crash along with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

Remembering Apollo 8

William Anders said in an 1997 NASA oral history interview that he didn’t think the Apollo 8 mission was risk-free but there were important national, patriotic and exploration reasons for going ahead.

He estimated that there was about a one in three chance that the crew wouldn’t make it back and the same chance the mission would be a success and the same chance that the mission wouldn’t start to begin with. 

Anders recounted how Earth looked fragile and seemingly physically insignificant, yet was home.

“We’d been going backwards and upside down, didn’t really see the Earth or the sun, and when we rolled around and came around and saw the first Earthrise,” he said.

“That certainly was, by far, the most impressive thing. To see this very delicate, colourful orb, which to me looked like a Christmas tree ornament coming up over this very stark, ugly lunar landscape really contrasted.”

Three astronauts in their spacesuits walk toward a waiting van.
The Apollo 8 astronauts walk to a van heading for their Saturn V rocket for their moon orbit mission from Cape Kennedy, Fla., on Dec. 21, 1968. Leading the way is Commander Frank Borman, followed by James Lovell and Anders. (The Associated Press)

Anders joined NASA in the 1960s. He did not go into space until Dec. 21, 1968, when Apollo 8 lifted off.

Anders was the “rookie” on the crew, alongside Frank Borman, the mission commander, and James Lovell, who had flown with Borman on Gemini 7 in 1965 and later commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13.

The three astronauts were greeted as national heroes when they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and were feted as Time magazine’s “Men of the Year.”

Anders was born on Oct. 17, 1933, in Hong Kong. At the time, his father was a navy lieutenant aboard the USS Panay, a U.S. gunboat in China’s Yangtze River.

In later life, Anders and his wife, Valerie, founded the Heritage Flight Museum in Washington state in 1996. It is now based at a regional airport in Burlington, Wash., and features aircraft, several antique military vehicles, a library and many artifacts donated by veterans, according to the museum’s website. Two of his sons helped him run it.

The couple moved to Orcas Island in the San Juan archipelago in 1993, and kept a second home in their hometown of San Diego, according to a biography on the museum’s website. They have six children and 13 grandchildren. Their current Washington home was in Anacortes.

He later served on the Atomic Energy Commission, as the U.S. chairman of the joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. technology exchange program for nuclear fission and fusion power, and as ambassador to Norway. He later worked for General Electric and General Dynamics, according to his NASA biography.

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