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William Anders, Apollo 8 astronaut who took famous ‘Earthrise’ photo, dies in plane crash at 90

In World
June 08, 2024

William Anders, an astronaut who was one of the first three people to orbit the moon, and who took the famous “Earthrise” photo, died Friday after a small plane he was in crashed in the water north of Seattle, according to NASA, local officials and his family. He was 90.

The Coast Guard for the Pacific Northwest said just before 1 p.m. local time that it and the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office were responding to a plane crash between Orcas and Jones islands, which are around 80 miles north of Seattle.

The sheriff’s office said only the pilot was believed to have been in the two-seat plane. A body was recovered and the pilot’s identification retrieved, it said.

Anders’ son, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Anders, confirmed the death to The Associated Press.

“The family is devastated,” Greg Anders said, according to the news agency. “He was a great pilot and we will miss him terribly.”

NASA Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson offered his condolences.

“In 1968, during Apollo 8, 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,” Nelson wrote on X.

The first report of the plane crash came into the San Juan Sheriff’s Office dispatch center at around 11:40 a.m. Friday, Sheriff Eric Peter said, and authorities responded. The report was that an older model plane was flying north to south and went into the water and sunk.

A woman who answered a phone number listed for Nelson who did not give her name said the astronaut was believed to have been on the plane, and declined to make a further comment.

The crew of Apollo 8 in front of a simulator, 1968.Artist: NASA (Print Collector/Getty Images file)

The crew of Apollo 8 in front of a simulator, 1968.Artist: NASA (Print Collector/Getty Images file)

The Apollo 8 mission was launched 55 years ago on Dec. 21, 1968, to circle the moon and return to earth in preparation for the Apollo 11 lunar landing the following year.

Anders was lunar module pilot on the Apollo 8 mission. Also on the mission were Frank Borman, who was the commander, and James Lovell Jr.  The mission proved the command and service module.

Anders took the famous “Earthrise” photo that showed our world with the lunar horizon in the foreground.

Image: Earthrise (Bill Anders / NASA file)

Image: Earthrise (Bill Anders / NASA file)

The “Earthrise” photo was an unexpected surprise. Anders’ main job during the orbit of the moon was to take photos of the lunar surface.

On the third pass, they saw the Earth rising over the horizon.

“Oh my God! Look at that picture over there,” he said while on the space mission. There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.”

Borman, the commander, joked that he shouldn’t take the photo, because it wasn’t on the flight plan.

“When the Earth came up over the lunar horizon, that’s when it really impressed me as to how much more delicate the Earth was, and colorful,” Anders said in an interview on the “TODAY” show in 2018 to mark the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking mission.

Anders said in that interview that he believed he had a one in three chance of not surviving the Apollo 8 mission.

After about 25 hours of flight, Anders started taking pictures. A photo of the full Earth from space in full color, the first ever, is Anders’ favorite shot.

Portrait of Astronaut William A Anders (Bettmann Archive file)

Portrait of Astronaut William A Anders (Bettmann Archive file)

Anders was born in Hong Kong on Oct. 17, 1933. He had four sons and two daughters.

He was also the backup pilot for the Gemini XI mission and Apollo 11 mission in which the first humans actually landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.

The National Transportation Safety Board said that the plane that crashed was a Beech A45, and that the agency is investigating the crash.

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Arizona, who is a former astronaut, wrote on X that Anders was an inspiration.

“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,” Kelly wrote.

Anders was a fighter pilot in the Air Force in interception squadrons and he was selected to be an astronaut in 1964. He joked to NBC’s Harry Smith in 2018 that, “I’m probably the world’s best fighter pilot, but we don’t talk about that.”

“I must say, even today if I look up and see that little crescent moon, my hair kind of goes up on the back of my neck a little bit,” Anders said then.

CORRECTION (June 7, 2024, 10:45 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated when the Apollo 11 moon landing took place. It was July 20, 1969, not July 24.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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