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Famed Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, dead in vintage-plane crash, changed history

Creator of famed "Earthrise" photo perished in vintage-plane crash in San Juan Islands

William "Bill" Anders of Anacortes, who died in a plane crash Friday, June 7 in the San Juan Islands, suits up for his famed Apollo 8 flight in December 1968. (Photo courtesy of NASA)
By Ron Judd Executive Editor

Famed Apollo 8 astronaut William A. “Bill” Anders of Anacortes, one of the first three humans to travel around the moon and return to earth, died Friday, June 7 when a vintage plane he was piloting plummeted into the water in the San Juan Islands.

Anders, 90, reportedly was flying alone Friday morning in a Beechcraft T-34 Mentor piston-engine aircraft that crashed into the Salish Sea near Jones Island, between San Juan and Orcas islands.

The crash is being investigated by federal aviation officials; the plane’s wreckage has been located, according to the San Juan County Sheriff’s office.

Apollo 8 Lunar Module Pilot Gen. William Anders, speaks to reporters in front of the Saturn 5 Aft End, the F-1 rocket engines of the first stage of the Apollo 11/Saturn 5 launch vehicle in July 2004 in Washington. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo)

Anders’ son, Greg, Friday evening confirmed his father’s death and said the extended Anders family was struggling to accept the loss.

“We’re still processing the tragedy,” Greg Anders, of Bellingham, told Cascadia Daily News. “Our family is devastated. We’re mourning the loss of a great pilot and a great father.”

Anders achieved international fame during the December 1968 flight of Apollo 8, the first spacecraft to travel to the moon, achieve orbit and return safely to Earth.

On the third orbit of 10 around the moon during that flight, the space capsule adjusted its flight angle, offering an unexpected view of the earth “rising” above the moon’s surface.

Anders grabbed a Hasselblad camera and serendipitously captured the renowned “Earthrise” photograph of the planet appearing as a small, fragile blue ball above the barren surface of the moon, never before seen up close by humans.

The photograph, depicting the fragility of the planet, became the symbol of the first Earth Day in 1970. It is widely credited with launching environmental movements around the globe.

The original “Earthrise” photo, shot by Bill Anders from Apollo 8, is credited with launching global environmental movements. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

In a 2012 Seattle Times interview conducted by this reporter at Anders’ then-Orcas Island home, Anders said he was comfortable and proud to know that that moment would become his legacy — a defining moment in a career that began as an Air Force pilot and ended with major roles as a NASA consultant to the White House, corporate CEO and ambassador.

In typical modesty, Anders called the Earthrise image a “crappy photo” as he considered it slightly out of focus. But the image changed the course of history, later appearing on a U.S. postage stamp and becoming one of the most-published photographs in the world.

“I’ve always used the phrase, ‘ironic,’ ” Anders said in 2012: “We came all this way to discover the moon. And what we really did discover is Earth.”

Anders was clear in his understanding that Apollo 8, in which he traveled with fellow NASA astronauts Col. Frank Borman and James Lovell, was sent to the moon ahead of schedule purely as a necessary step in an urgent Cold War space race to the moon against the Soviet Union.

The official NASA portrait of astronaut William Anders. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

“Apollo was all about beating the Russians to the moon,” Anders, who for many years operated a flight museum at the Bellingham International Airport, said in the 2012 interview. “It was not to get rocks. We went to the moon to stick the flag in.”

An accelerated NASA schedule for Apollo 8, the first space capsule to leave Earth on the massive, untested Saturn V rocket, came with extreme danger — something Anders said he and fellow astronauts fully understood.

“I figured there were three possibilities, about equally weighted,” Anders said in 2012. “One, we could go and have a successful mission — one-third chance — which is what happened. Or, we could go, survive and not have a successful mission — that’s Apollo 13. Or, we could go and we wouldn’t come back; splat somewhere.”

His assessment, which came with a shrug: “Pretty good odds.”

The gambit paid off; in spite of an unexpectedly bone-jarring, violent liftoff and ride to space, Apollo 8 completed its mission in grand fashion, paving the way for the historic Apollo 11 moon landing in July, 1969, only seven months later.

Bill Anders, in a 2012 interview with the author, recalled this black and white “Earthrise” image as being faithful to the orientation of the Apollo 8 spacecraft when its inhabitants first saw Earth after orbiting the moon in 1968. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

The crew of Apollo 8 caught the attention of all of humanity with a live broadcast from the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, when the three astronauts, in succession, read from the Bible’s “Genesis” as images of the barren moonscape were broadcast.

Anders spoke first: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

Anders later said the decision, by Borman, to read the text was intended to be a universal tribute to the human creation story, not a religious gesture.

The moment is burned in the memory of many Americans, given its timing during a period of great national strife, including the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and civic riots in protest of the Vietnam War.

In later years, Anders said his one and only space flight altered his own view of the universe, stripping away any notions of divine intervention in the earth’s creation.

“When I looked back and saw that tiny Earth, it snapped my world view,” Anders told The Seattle Times. “Here we are, on kind of a physically inconsequential planet, going around a not particularly significant star, going around a galaxy of billions of stars that’s not a particularly significant galaxy — in a universe where there’s billions and billions of galaxies.”

“Are we really that special? I don’t think so.”

A year after the flight, Anders decided to end his space career. He accepted an appointment from President Richard Nixon to serve as executive secretary of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, which was tasked with determining America’s post-Apollo role.

He warned the president that the proposed next step for NASA, the Space Shuttle, would prove to be more costly and dangerous than traditional rocketry.

Anders retired in 1993 and returned to Washington state, where he had spent time as a child when his father was stationed in the Navy in Bremerton. He and his wife, Valerie, settled on Orcas Island, where he lived on a spectacular stretch of beach near Deer Harbor that also was home to famed sailboat pioneer Hobie Alter and legendary snow sports filmmaker Warren Miller.

A passionate collector of vintage military aircraft, he founded in retirement the Heritage Flight Museum, which opened in 1996 in a hangar at BLI. The museum was operated along with Anders’ son, Greg, also a retired military pilot.

From there, Anders often flew the museum’s showpiece, a gleaming silver/red P-51 Mustang nicknamed “Val-Halla.” The plane’s name was an ode to Anders’ wife, Valerie, and his call sign, “Viking,” from his days as a young Air Force pilot.

The famed aircraft was regularly seen flying at high speeds in the skies above Whatcom and Skagit counties, few people realizing a retired major global historical figure was at the stick.

Bill Anders, retired U.S. Air Force Major General and former Apollo 8 astronaut, poses for a photo astride his P-51 Mustang, “Val-Halla,” at Bellingham International Airport in the summer of 2012. Anders died while flying another single-engine vintage plane over the San Juan Islands on Friday June 7. (Ron Judd/Cascadia Daily News)

Anders also regularly flew more practical planes, including a de Havilland Beaver (to make Costco runs from the islands), and many other aircraft being restored by the flight museum, which hosts regular air shows.

The Anders’ later relocated from Orcas to Anacortes. In 2014, the Heritage Flight Museum also moved to Skagit County, taking up residence at the Skagit Regional Airport in Burlington, where it operates today. The Anders’ also maintained a residence in the San Diego area.

The couple has six children, including son Greg and daughter-in-law Judy Anders of Bellingham.

Anders was born Oct. 17, 1933, in Hong Kong, the son of Lt. Arthur Anders, a U.S. Naval officer, according to his museum biography. He graduated from Grossmont High School near San Diego, California, before graduating in 1955 from the U.S. Naval Academy and joining the U.S. Air Force as a fighter pilot in 1956.

In tense Cold War times, Anders, never one to shirk from danger, flew F-89 “Scorpion” aircraft armed with nuclear-tipped air-to-air missiles, making several intercepts of Russian bombers while flying out of Iceland. He later flew the F-101 “Voodoo” fighter jet. He was selected as an astronaut from a pool of thousands of applicants in 1963, initially assigned to the Gemini program. He later served as U.S. Ambassador to Norway and in the early 1990s, as CEO and chairman of General Dynamics.

He is survived by his wife, Valerie (Hoard) Anders; sons Alan, Glen, Greg and Eric; daughters Gayle and Diana; and 13 grandchildren.

Anders’ death was reported around the globe on Friday, with countless historians, aerospace and political figures paying tribute to his historic impact on space flight, and humanity.

“Bill Anders forever changed our perspective of our planet and ourselves,” former astronaut and current Sen. Mark Kelly wrote on social media platform X as news of Anders’ death spread. “He inspired me and generations of astronauts and explorers. My thoughts are with his family and friends.”

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