William Anders, astronaut on the first mission to orbit the Moon and photographed ‘Earthrise’ – biography

William Anders, who has died aged 90, was an American astronaut who flew what is often considered NASA’s most daring space mission; as a member of the Apollo 8 crew, he was one of the first three men to travel to the Moon, where they remained in orbit for a day and received mankind’s first close-up view of the stricken lunar surface.

Anders was the photographer on the flight, and took the historic picture of the blue and white Earth rising above the dim gray surface of the moon – an iconic image credited with starting the environmental movement.

Although their lunar orbit was eclipsed by the first Moon landing (Apollo 11) seven months later, Apollo 8 arguably made the most challenging journey, and certainly the necessary introduction . It was only the second Apollo flight and was originally intended to test NASA’s brand new lunar landing module in the relative safety of close Earth orbit. However, the lander, plagued by technical problems, was still unable to fly.

Adding to NASA’s angst, the Soviet Union sent the Zond 5 crew capsule to the Moon and back safely, albeit carrying only animals (including two turtles). A Russian-manned flight around the Moon was clearly imminent.

Earthrise, taken on Christmas Eve 1968 by William Anders for NASA

Earthrise, taken on Christmas Eve 1968 by William Anders – Heritage/Heritage Space Images via Getty Images

Wanting to avoid being beaten to another space record by their Cold War enemy, the Americans made the bold decision to send Anders and his colleagues to the Moon without the originally planned lunar module. This would provide the safety net of a duplicate engine and life support should anything go wrong – a facility that would later save the lives of the Apollo 13 crew on the moon.

On 21 December 1968, Anders, along with two highly experienced astronaut colleagues, commander Frank Borman and command module pilot James Lovell, lay in the hollow Apollo 8 capsule atop his steaming black-and-white Saturn V rocket at Cape Kennedy . The rookie Anders was so excited about the impending launch – only the third flight of the giant Saturn V in America and the first with a crew on board – that he fell asleep during the countdown.

The largest rocket ever built took off from Florida with a terrifying roar that shook spectators, including the astronauts’ families, watching three miles away. After a brief check while in Earth orbit, the engine restarted and they accelerated to the unprecedented velocity of 24,200 mph towards the Moon. The human altitude record, 850 miles at a time, was quickly broken as they set off on their 235,000 mile outward journey.

The giant Saturn V rocket exploding outThe giant Saturn V rocket exploding out

The giant Saturn V rocket blasting off – Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images

The crew, with Anders as cameraman, transmitted the first black-and-white television pictures showing the Earth as a ball suspended in the black vacuum, to a spectacular global audience. Their home planet quickly shrunk in the cabin window, and after a three-day journey the crew fired their engine to successfully enter lunar orbit. They were the first human beings to be held captive by the gravity of a planetary body other than Earth.

Anders had been trained to fly the lunar module, but with no craft ready, he was given the role of mission photographer. On their fourth revolution on the Moon, Anders saw an unusual sight that they had missed three times before, the colorful Earth rising above the lunar surface. Moving between windows and the craft rotating slowly, he shot several images that would be endlessly reproduced in publications around the world.

He would later express: “We all came this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing we discovered was the Earth.”

The team had planned to commemorate their historic achievement with a solemn speech from lunar orbit, but now, looking at the gloomy mountains, words failed them. Instead, they decided to take turns reading from the Book of Genesis. As the sun set on Apollo 8 during its ninth orbit, Anders read out: “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and without void, and darkness upon the face of the deep…”

Broadcast a quarter of a million miles to Earth from the three most remote human races in history, passing through the dark shadow of the Moon on Christmas Eve, the words had an unusual resonance with viewers on Earth.

But the gesture also sparked outrage and a lawsuit from militant atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who asserted the separation of church and state, and that NASA’s budget should not promote the Bible. The US Supreme Court later rejected this, citing a lack of jurisdiction over the location of the offending reading.

Anders, 1968Anders, 1968

Anders, 1968 – photo by ullstein via Getty Images

Its perilous mission ended with a spectacular re-entry into the atmosphere and a pre-dawn splashdown in the Pacific Ocean north of New Zealand. It effectively marked the end of the Moon race with the USSR.

William (“Bill”) Alison Anders was born on 17 October 1933 in Hong Kong, where his father Arthur, a US Navy lieutenant, was stationed with his wife Muriel, née Adams.

When Bill was four years old, Arthur Anders became the hero of the famous “USS Panay Incident” when Japanese aircraft defiantly targeted his Navy gunboat on the Yangtze River in China. With a shrapnel wound to the throat, he was reduced to issuing written orders as his ship sank, earning him a Navy Cross and a Purple Heart.

The family returned to California where young Bill was educated in El Cajon and San Diego, followed by the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. After graduation, he transferred to the US Air Force, earned his wings in 1956, and flew interceptors from California and Iceland – the latter to combat Soviet bombers was challenging US air defenses.

Anders joined NASA in 1963 as part of the third intake of astronauts. His only space flight was Apollo 8, and after backing up Michael Collins on the Apollo 11 moon landing, he left the agency in 1969. After that, he ran the National Council Aeronautics and Space, advising the President of the United States on space policy.

He became chairman of national nuclear companies and was appointed ambassador to Norway, after which he had a successful and rewarding business career in engineering and aviation.

Anders (2004): a lunar crater was named after himAnders (2004): a lunar crater was named after him

Anders (2004): a lunar crater was named after him – AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

In 1970, the ban on naming lunar features after living individuals was briefly suspended in the case of Anders and his colleagues, as well as the crew of the first Moon landing, Apollo 11. A crater 25 miles wide on the far side is called Anders on the Moon now.

An avid pilot, he was alone flying a small aircraft yesterday when it crashed into waters near the San Juan Islands, Washington state.

Anders married Valerie Hoard in 1955, and they had four sons and two daughters. After that he settled in the state of Washington.

William Anders, born October 17, 1933, died June 7, 2024

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