Apollo 8 Astronaut Bill Anders, Renowned for Iconic ‘Earthrise’ Photo, Dies in Plane Crash at Age 90

Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders adjusts his helmet while suiting up for his 1968 moon mission. (NASA Photo)

Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, who snapped the iconic “Earthrise” photo of our planet as seen from lunar orbit, died today in a plane crash in waters off the San Juan Islands.

The 90-year-old spaceflier’s son, Greg Anders, confirmed his father’s death in an interview with The Associated Press and said the family was “devastated.”

“He was a great pilot, and we will miss him terribly,” he told AP.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson paid tribute to Anders in a posting to the X social-media platform. “In 1968, during Apollo 8, Bill Anders offered to humanity among the deepest of gifts an astronaut can give,” Nelson wrote. “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.”

Anders is best known around the globe as the lunar module pilot who wielded the camera during Apollo 8’s mission. But decades after that round-the-moon trip, he remained active on the Seattle area’s aviation scene as the founder of the Heritage Flight Museum in Burlington, Wash. He and his family moved to Orcas Island in the San Juans in 1993 — and later took up residence in Anacortes, Wash.

The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office said a report came in at around 11:40 a.m. PT today that an older-model airplane plunged into the water off the coast of Jones Island as it flew from north to south. Orcas Island resident Phillip Person witnessed the crash and posted video to Facebook. “Crazy!!!!!!!” Person wrote.

San Juan County Sheriff Eric Peter said a search was being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. A dive team was called to the scene. “The search is ongoing,” Peter told GeekWire.

Based on an incident report from the Federal Aviation Administration, Anders was the pilot and sole occupant of the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor aircraft. The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the incident.

Anders, the son of a U.S. naval officer, was born in Hong Kong in 1933, spent much of his childhood in San Diego and earned his wings as an Air Force pilot in 1956. He was selected to join NASA’s astronaut corps in 1963. Although he was assigned to the backup crew for Gemini 11, Apollo 8 was his first and his last spaceflight.

For years, there was a bit of controversy over who actually took the famous picture of Earth rising above the moon’s horizon as the Apollo 8 command module emerged from the lunar far side. Historians now agree that it was Anders.

The picture became an icon for environmental awareness. It helped give rise to a phenomenon known as the “Overview Effect” — a deep feeling of connectedness and planetary protectiveness sparked by seeing our blue planet against the blackness of space.

“We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth,” Anders said after the mission.

Anders took a backup role for Apollo 11 in 1969, which marked humanity’s first moon landing, and served in administrative roles at NASA for several years afterward. He left NASA to join the Atomic Energy Commission, and in 1975 he became the first chairman of the reorganized Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Anders also served as an ambassador to Norway and later took on several executive roles in the nuclear industry and the aerospace industry.

After retiring to the Pacific Northwest, Anders and his wife, Valerie, established the Anders Foundation to support educational and environmental concerns. The Heritage Flight Museum continues, with Anders’ children in charge.

Anders’ legacy endures beyond Earth as well: To mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8 in 2018, the International Astronomical Union gave a new name to one of the craters seen in the photo he took: “Anders’ Earthrise.”

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