Image Source : AP Former Air Force general and astronaut William Anders took the iconic ‘Earthrise’ photo.

Washington: Retired Major General William Anders, the former Apollo 8 astronaut who took the famous ‘Earthrise’ photo from space in 1968 showing the first picture of the globe, was killed on Friday when the plane he was piloting alone crashed off the San Juan islands in the Washington state of the United States. Anders was 90 at the time of his death, which was confirmed by the Heritage Flight Museum near Burlington, Washington, which he co-founded.

As per reports, Anders, a resident of San Juan County, was at the controls of a vintage Air Force single-engine T-34 Mentor that he owned. The plane went down off the coast of Jones Island, part of the San Juan Islands archipelago north of Seattle, between Washington and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. “The family is devastated,” said his son retired Air Force Lt Col Greg Anders. “He was a great pilot and we will miss him terribly.”

NASA chief Bill Nelson paid tribute to Anders on social media with a post of the iconic image of Earth rising over the lunar horizon, saying the former Air Force pilot “offered to humanity among the deepest of gifts an astronaut can give.” Anders said the ‘Earthrise’ photo was his most significant contribution to the space program along with making sure the Apollo 8 command module and service module worked.

Who was William Anders?

Anders was born on October 17, 1933, in Hong Kong, which was then under British rule. He was the son of a US Navy lieutenant and his family relocated Annapolis, Maryland, shortly after his birth but later returned to China, where Anders fled to the Philippines with his mother after the Japanese assault on Nanking.

He earned an electrical engineering degree from the Naval Academy in Annapolis. A US Naval Academy graduate and Air Force pilot, Anders joined NASA in 1963 as a member of the third group of astronauts. He did not go into space until December 21, 1968, when Apollo 8 lifted off on the first crewed mission to leave Earth orbit and travel 240,000 miles (386,000 km) to the Moon. 

Anders was the “rookie” on the crew, alongside Frank Borman, the mission commander, and James Lovell, who had flown with Borman on Gemini 7 in 1965 and later commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13. After the launch, he served on the National Aeronautics and Space Council. In 1975, he was appointed by President Gerald Ford as first chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and later as ambassador to Norway.

Apollo 8, originally scheduled for 1969, was pushed forward because of concerns the Russians were accelerating their own plans for a trip around the moon by the end of 1968. That gave the crew only several months to train for the historic but highly risky mission. Carried by a Saturn V rocket never before used on a crewed flight and tested only twice, the spacecraft faced the delicate and daunting task of entering and leaving lunar orbit safely. 

The ‘Earthrise’ photo

The Apollo 8 reached the Moon on Christmas eve and during its 10 orbits captivated a worldwide television audience of more than a billion people by transmitting the first pictures of the lunar surface just miles below. The astronauts’ focus shifted abruptly when the Earth began rising over the lunar surface.

Describing the Moon as a “boring place”, Anders and others shifted their attention towards capturing the picture of the Earth. Using a long lens and color film, Anders ended up snapping the photograph now known as “Earthrise.” The image, vividly capturing both the Earth’s beauty in the vastness of space, is considered one of history’s most influential photographs, widely credited with helping inspire the environmental movement.

He also played a key role in another indelible episode from that Christmas Eve mission – leading off as the crew read from the Book of Genesis while Apollo 8 transmitted images of the lunar surface to Earth. The three astronauts were greeted as national heroes when they splashed down three days later in the Pacific Ocean and were feted as Time magazine’s “Men of the Year.”

“You saved 1968,” read one thank-you note to the crew. Their mission paved the way to the first moon landing by Apollo 11 seven months later, assuring US victory in the Cold War “space race” with the Soviet Union. Arizona Senator, Mark Kelly, who is also a retired NASA astronaut, said Anders forever changed the perspective of the planet with his famous Earthrise photo, inspiring generations of astronauts and explorers.

Anders and his wife Valerie, whom he married in 1955, are survived by their six children. In the decades after Apollo 8, Anders joined Lovell, now 96, and Borman, who died last year at age 95, at anniversary celebrations of the mission. Anders and his wife founded the Heritage Flight Museum in Washington state in 1996.

(with inputs from agencies)


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