Astronaut, 'Earthrise' photographer, dies in plane crash
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Astronaut, 'Earthrise' photographer, dies in plane crash

The iconic photograph taken by astronaut William A. Anders aboard Apollo 8 on Dec 24, 1968. (Photo: Nasa)
The iconic photograph taken by astronaut William A. Anders aboard Apollo 8 on Dec 24, 1968. (Photo: Nasa)

WASHINGTON - William Anders, the US astronaut whose "Earthrise" photograph from lunar orbit captured humanity's humble place in the cosmos, punctuating the 1960s' race to the moon with one of the most recognised images of the 20th century, has died. He was 90.

Anders was killed Friday when the plane he was piloting alone crashed into waters near the San Juan Islands in Washington state, the Associated Press (AP) reported. His son, retired Air Force Lt Col Greg Anders, confirmed the death to the AP.

Alongside Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, Anders made history on the first crewed mission to the moon — a six-day flight that began on Dec 21, 1968. It carried the trio about 240,000 miles (386,200 kilometres) one way and vaulted the United States past the Soviet Union for primacy in spaceflight. 

As their craft circled the moon, Anders took the colour photo of Earth rising above the lunar horizon and, in a televised Christmas Eve message to viewers in the US, led off as the crew took turns reading from the Book of Genesis.

"I just kept clicking and figuring that sooner or later one of them would be good," Anders said in an interview with documentary filmmaker R.J. McHatton. "One of them turned out OK, and that became the iconic 'Earthrise' picture, which I was eventually credited with." (For years, there had been some confusion over whether he or Borman had snapped the image.)

Officially known as Nasa Image 2883, "Earthrise" is often cited as a catalyst for the environmental movement and was included in the 2003 Life magazine story "100 Photographs That Changed the World." Wilderness photographer Galen Rowell described it as "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken."

Anders "travelled to the threshold of the Moon and helped all of us see something else: ourselves," Nasa Administrator Bill Nelson said in a tweet on Friday. "We will miss him."

Initially trained as the lunar module pilot for a test flight scheduled to orbit the Earth in 1969, Anders became part of an Apollo 8 mission that was expanded and fast-tracked to upstage the Soviet Union, which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) said was readying its own moon venture.

"It was a bold move," Lovell said in the 2007 documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. "It had some risky aspects to it. But it was a time when we made bold moves."

William A. Anders is in orbit on the Apollo 8 lunar mission. (Photo: Nasa)

Apollo 8, a preparatory mission for the Apollo 11 lunar landing the following year, was also significant for being the first to take astronauts out of low Earth orbit; the first manned flight launched on the Saturn V rocket; the first to take photos of Earth from deep space; and the first to feature live television coverage of the lunar landscape, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. While there was no lunar lander for Anders to fly, Apollo 8 carried a 19,900-pound (9,027-kilogramme) Lunar Module Test Article to simulate the module's mass.

Fled China

William Alison Anders was born on Oct 17, 1933, in Hong Kong, to Arthur Anders and the former Muriel Adams. His father was a Navy lieutenant. During Japan’s 1937 attack on Nanking, Anders and his mother fled China.

He graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1955 and earned a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology.

In 1964, he joined Nasa as an astronaut and became a backup pilot for Gemini XI, a preliminary mission for the Apollo program.

After his Apollo 8 flight, Anders was executive secretary for the National Aeronautics and Space Council, advising President Richard Nixon's administration on research and development for aeronautical and space systems. He served in the job until 1973, when he was appointed to the Atomic Energy Commission. Two years later, President Gerald Ford named him chairman of the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Anders was then US ambassador to Norway until 1977, when he joined General Electric Co as vice president and general manager of the nuclear-products unit in San Jose, California. In 1980, he became general manager of GE’s aircraft equipment division in Utica, New York, before working for Textron Inc, where he rose to senior executive vice president for operations in 1986. Anders became chief executive officer of General Dynamics Corp in 1991 and retired as chairman in 1994, according to Nasa. He left the military in 1988, retiring as a major general in the Air Force Reserve.

With his wife, the former Valerie Hoard, Anders had two daughters and four sons.

He would later credit his Apollo 8 accomplishments with helping shape his decision to leave the space program and reorienting his religious outlook. There were no horizons left for him to conquer in space, he said in a 2012 interview with the Seattle Times. And, after being raised as a Catholic, he told the newspaper that his faith perspective changed after Apollo 8.

"When I looked back and saw that tiny Earth, it snapped my world view," Anders said. "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."

Apollo 8: Around the Moon and Back (Video: Nasa)

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