Former NASA astronaut Bill Anders, who won renown by taking the iconic Earthrise photo in 1968 on Apollo 8, died yesterday in the crash of a private plane he was piloting. He was 90. In interviews over the years and as recently as last December, he described the photo’s enduring impact by showing that Earth is “very fragile and very delicate.”

Along with Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, Anders spent Christmas 1968 orbiting the Moon, the first humans to make the 238,855 mile (384,500 kilometer) voyage, arriving on Christmas Eve.

Apollo 8 crew, L-R: Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, Frank Borman. Credit: NASA

A NASA video honoring Anders released yesterday includes the real-time audio of that moment in 1968 when he says “Oh my God, look at that picture over there. There’s the Earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty.” He asked Lovell for a roll of color film and moments later took what is probably the most recognizable photo of Earth with the Moon in the foreground ever made.

Earthrise. Photo taken by NASA astronaut Bill Anders on Apollo 8, December 24, 1968. Credit: NASA

In an interview with NASA Chief Scientist and Senior Climate Advisor Kate Calvin just six months ago, Anders recounted the story of how they were “upside down and going backwards” for the first few orbits focused on photographing the lunar surface and couldn’t see Earth, but as they righted themselves suddenly he could see “this color, it was shocking.”

Bill Anders tells NASA Chief Scientist and Senior Climate Advisor Kate Calvin the story of the Earthrise photo, December 29, 2023.

In an undated interview included in the video NASA released yesterday, Anders talked about the photo’s legacy.

“I made the comment somewhere along the line that we went to the Moon to explore the Moon, but what we really did was discover the Earth. It didn’t really sink in on me for a while, but others picked it up, it sort of gave a kick start to the environmental movement, and so I think Earthrise will go down in history as an iconic first real view of our home planet, which is very fragile and very delicate.” — Bill Anders

Apollo 8 was the first and only spaceflight for Anders. He was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1964 after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1955 and serving as an Air Force fighter pilot.

In a 1997 NASA oral history, Anders explained how in 1959 he wanted to get into the Air Force Flight Test School and Chuck Yeager told him they were looking for people with advanced degrees. That led him to earn a master of science degree in nuclear engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1962. When he went back to Yeager, however, he was told the criteria had changed and now advanced degrees didn’t count as much as flight hours. At that time NASA was selecting its third group of astronauts and while one had to be a test pilot school graduate for the first two, this time one could be a test pilot or have an advanced degree. He could hardly believe they’d made that an “or,” but applied and learned on his birthday (October 17) in 1963 that he’d been selected as a NASA astronaut. (He tells a colorful story about Yeager’s reaction.)

Apollo 8 was his only spaceflight, but he was backup pilot for Gemini XI and Apollo 11. He left NASA and was Executive Secretary of the White House National Aeronautics and Space Council from 1969 until 1973 when President Nixon abolished it. (Today’s National Space Council was established in the 1989 National Aeronautics and Space Act.)  He was soon appointed as one of five commissioners of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In 1975 when the AEC was split into the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), he became the first Chairman of the NRC. He left the NRC in 1976 to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Norway for one year.

He left government in 1977 and spent the next 17 years in high level positions at General Electric, Textron, and General Dynamics, retiring as GD’s CEO in 1993 and Chairman in 1994. He remained in the Air Force reserve throughout his career and retired as a Major General in 1988.

Anders was flying his own Beechcraft T-34 Mentor over the San Juan Islands in the Puget Sound in Washington State yesterday when the plane crashed. His son Greg Anders, a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, told the Associated Press that the family is “devastated” and his father “was a great pilot and we will miss him terribly.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson paid tribute to Anders yesterday saying:

“As Bill put it so well after the conclusion of the Apollo 8 mission, ‘We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.’

“That is what Bill embodied – the notion that we go to space to learn the secrets of the universe yet in the process learn about something else: ourselves. He embodied the lessons and the purpose of exploration.” — Bill Nelson

Fellow Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who along with Neil Armstrong were the first men to step foot on the Moon on Apollo 11 seven months after Anders’ flight, offered his condolences on X.

Very saddened about the passing of my friend, USAF Major Gen Bill Anders. Bill, you will always be an inspiration and you will be missed. My deepest condolences to Bill’s family during this difficult time.

— Dr. Buzz Aldrin (@TheRealBuzz) June 8, 2024

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), a former astronaut, posted on X that Anders “inspired me and generations of astronauts and explorers.”

Bill Anders forever changed our perspective of our planet and ourselves with his famous Earthrise photo on Apollo 8. He inspired me and generations of astronauts and explorers. My thoughts are with his family and friends.

— Senator Mark Kelly (@SenMarkKelly) June 8, 2024

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