William Anders, former Apollo 8 astronaut, dies in plane crash

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, Greg Anders, confirmed the death to CBS News, saying that the plane which crashed belonged to his father. San Juan County Sheriff Eric Peter told CBS News that crews were searching the area, but had not yet recovered a body. 

A report came in around 11:40 a.m. that an older-model plane crashed into the water and sank near the north end of Jones Island, Peter said.

Maj. Gen. William Anders
Maj. Gen. William Anders arrives at the 6th Annual Living Legends of Aviation Awards ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 22, 2009, in Beverly Hills, California.

Kevin Winter / Getty Images

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

Peter said the sheriff’s office, U.S. Coast Guard and personnel from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife responded to conduct search and rescue efforts. and a team of divers also headed to the crash area.

The National Transportation Safety Board and FAA are investigating.

Anders, who was born in Hong Kong on Oct. 17, 1933, attended the U.S. Naval Academy and the Air Force Institute of Technology before being selected as an astronaut in the NASA space program in 1964.

He logged more than 6,000 hours flying time, according to his NASA biography, serving as a backup pilot on the Gemini XI and Apollo 11 flights, and as a lunar module pilot for Apollo 8.  

Anders said 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.

This view of the rising Earth greeted the Apollo 8 astronauts as they came from behind the Moon after the fourth nearside orbit. The photo is displayed here in its original orientation, though it is more commonly viewed with the lunar surface at the bottom of the photo. Earth is about five degrees left of the horizon in the photo. The unnamed surface features on the left are near the eastern limb of the Moon as viewed from Earth. The lunar horizon is approximately 780 kilometers from the spacecraft. Height of the photographed area at the lunar horizon is about 175 kilometers.

NASA/ Headquarters

William Anders said in a 1997 NASA oral history interview 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.

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

“We’d been going backwards 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.”

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