William Anders, NASA Astronaut Who Captured Iconic ‘Earthrise’ Photograph, Dies at 90

The Apollo 8 lunar module pilot also served in the U.S. Air Force and worked extensively on nuclear energy projects

Earth emerges over the moon's horizon.
Taken in December 1968 during NASA's Apollo 8 mission, William Anders' iconic "Earthrise" photograph galvanized environmental movements and inspired people on Earth. NASA

William A. Anders, the Apollo 8 astronaut who captured the iconic “Earthrise” photograph in December 1968, has died at the age of 90.

The small, vintage plane he was piloting alone—a Beechcraft T-34 Mentor—crashed into the water near Roche Harbor, Washington, on June 7, local officials confirmed.

“The family is devastated,” his son, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Greg Anders, tells the Associated Press’ Gene Johnson and Audrey McAvoy. “He was a great pilot, and we will miss him terribly.”

“He traveled to the threshold of the moon and helped all of us see something else: ourselves,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson wrote on X. “He embodied the lessons and the purpose of exploration.”

Astronaut William A. Anders, photographed in 1968
William A. Anders, photographed in 1968. NASA

Born in 1933 in Hong Kong, Anders graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1955 and was subsequently commissioned to the U.S. Air Force, where he earned his pilot’s wings the following year, CNN’s Joe Sutton and Ashley R. Williams report. In the skies over California and Iceland, he served as an all-weather fighter pilot, and he later managed nuclear reactor shielding and radiation effects programs at New Mexico’s Air Force Weapons Laboratory.

In 1963, Anders was chosen to be a member of NASA’s third group of astronauts. With Neil Armstrong, he was part of the Gemini 11 backup crew in 1966. Two years later, Anders served as the lunar module pilot for the Apollo 8 mission, alongside command module pilot Jim Lovell and mission commander Frank Borman. The trio launched to space on the first crewed flight of the Saturn V rocket.

“The Apollo 8 crew took on [one] of the hardest, highest-risk missions one can imagine,” Dan Dumbacher, CEO of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, tells Smithsonian magazine in an email.

“Because of the pressures of the space race, the mission objective of orbiting the moon was set just four months before [Apollo 8] was scheduled to launch,” Teasel Muir-Harmony, curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, writes in an email to Smithsonian magazine. “This timeline required intense training and focus from the crew. As the first mission of its kind, it also required tremendous bravery.”

The Gemini 11 prime and backup crew: William Anders, Richard Gordon Jr., Charles Conrad Jr., and Neil Armstrong (L-R).
The Gemini 11 prime and backup crews, from left to right: William Anders, Richard Gordon, Jr., Charles Conrad, Jr., and Neil Armstrong. NASA

After the Apollo 8 mission launched on December 21, 1968, Anders and his crewmates set records for traveling faster and farther than any human had ever gone before. They orbited the moon ten times, becoming the first people to observe the dark side of the moon and the first to see Earth from beyond the lunar horizon.

“The most impressive aspect of the flight was [when] we were in lunar orbit,” Anders said in a 1997 NASA oral history. “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, that certainly was, by far, the most impressive thing, to see this very delicate, colorful orb—which to me looked like a Christmas tree ornament—coming up over this very stark, ugly lunar landscape.”

On Christmas Eve 1968, the astronauts took pictures of this stunning view of Earth. Anders, the only one using color film, captured the now-famous image called “Earthrise.”

NASA Remembers Apollo 8 Astronaut Bill Anders

The photograph was made into a postage stamp in 1969 and galvanized the environmental protection movement, appearing on posters during the first Earth Day in 1970, the New York Times Richard Goldstein reports.

In a 2015 interview with Forbes’ Jim Clash, Anders said: “The view points out the beauty of Earth and its fragility. It helped kick start the environmental movement. … Here we came all the way to the moon to discover Earth.”

Together, the Apollo 8 crew members—Anders, Lovell and Borman—were named the Time magazine “Men of the Year” for 1968. Later, Anders served on the backup crew for the Apollo 11 mission.

Anders, as the backup crew pilot of the Gemini-11 spaceflight, participates in extravehicular activity training under zero-gravity conditions.
Anders, as the backup crew pilot of the Gemini 11 mission, participates in extravehicular activity training under zero-gravity conditions. NASA

Following Apollo 8—his one and only journey into space, which lasted a total of six days, three hours and 42 seconds—Anders served as the executive secretary for the National Aeronautics and Space Council from 1969 to 1973. He also held high-ranking positions within the Atomic Energy Commission and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and for a little over a year, from 1976 to 1977, he was the U.S. ambassador to Norway.

Today, the Earthrise photograph and the camera Anders used to capture it are on display in the “One World Connected” gallery at the National Air and Space Museum.

“Earthrise and the camera remind us of the recentness of our perspective of Earth from space, and, more importantly, of humanity’s place in the universe,” says Muir-Harmony.

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