Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, who took iconic Earthrise photo, killed in plane crash (2024)

SEATTLE — Retired Maj. Gen. William Anders, the former Apollo 8 astronaut who took the iconic “Earthrise” photo showing the planet as a shadowed blue marble from space in 1968, was killed Friday when the plane he was piloting alone plummeted into the waters off the San Juan Islands in Washington state. He was 90. His son, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Anders, confirmed the death to The Associated Press.

“The family is devastated,” Greg Anders said. “He was a great pilot and we will miss him terribly.”

Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, who took iconic Earthrise photo, killed in plane crash (1)

William Anders hassaid the photo was his most significant contribution to the space program, given the ecological philosophical impact it had, along with making sure the Apollo 8 command module and service module worked.

The photograph, the first color image of Earth from space, is one of the most important photos in modern history for the way it changed how humans viewed the planet. The photo is credited with sparking theglobal environmental movement for showing how delicate and isolated Earth appeared from space.

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NASA Administrator and former Sen. Bill Nelson said Anders embodied the lessons and the purpose of exploration.

“He traveled to the threshold of the Moon and helped all of us see something else: ourselves,” Nelson wrote on the social platform X.

Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, who took iconic Earthrise photo, killed in plane crash (2)

Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, who took iconic Earthrise photo, killed in plane crash (3)

Anders snapped the photo during the crew’s fourth orbit of the moon, frantically switching from black-and-white to color film.

“Oh my God, look at that picture over there!” Anders said. “There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!”

TheApollo 8 missionin December 1968 was the first human spaceflight to leave low-Earth orbit and travel to the moon and back. It was NASA’s boldest and perhaps most dangerous voyage yet and one that set the stage for the Apollo moon landing seven months later.

Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, who is also a retired NASA astronaut, wrote on the social platform X, "Bill Anders forever changed our perspective of our planet and ourselves with his famous Earthrise photo on Apollo 8. He inspired me and generations of astronauts and explorers. My thoughts are with his family and friends.”

A report came in around11:40 a.m. that an older-model plane crashed into the water and sank near the north end of Jones Island, San Juan County Sheriff Eric Peter said.

Only the pilot was onboard the Beech A45 airplane at the time, according to the Federal Aviation Association.

William Anders said in an 1997NASA oral historyinterview that he didn’t think the Apollo 8 mission was risk-free but there were important national, patriotic and exploration reasons for going ahead. He estimated there was about one in three chance that the crew wouldn’t make it back and the same chance the mission would be a success and the same chance that the mission wouldn’t start to begin with. He said he suspected Christopher Columbus sailed with worse odds.

Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, who took iconic Earthrise photo, killed in plane crash (4)

Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, who took iconic Earthrise photo, killed in plane crash (5)

He recounted how earth looked fragile and seemingly physically insignificant, yet was home.

“We’d been goingbackwards and upside down, didn’t really see the Earth or the Sun, and when we rolled around and came around and saw the first Earthrise,” he said. “That certainly was, by far, the most impressive thing. To see this very delicate, colorful orb which to me looked like a Christmas tree ornament coming up over this very stark, ugly lunar landscape really contrasted.”

Anders and his wife, Valerie, founded the Heritage Flight Museum in Washington state in 1996. It is now based at a regional airport in Burlington, and features 15 aircrafts, several antique military vehicles, a library and many artifacts donated by veterans, according to the museum’s website. Two of his sons helped him run it.

The couple moved to Orcas Island, in the San Juan archipelago, in 1993, and kept a second home in their hometown of San Diego, according to a biography on the museum's website. They had six children and 13 grandchildren.

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Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, who took iconic Earthrise photo, killed in plane crash (2024)
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