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NASA astronaut Bill Anders, who took famous photo of Earth during Apollo, dies at 90

 This picture, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, is one of the most famous images ever photographed in space. It shows the earth rising against the barren lunar landscape on the first human mission to the moon in 1968.
Bill Anders
This picture, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, is one of the most famous images ever photographed in space. It shows the earth rising against the barren lunar landscape on the first human mission to the moon in 1968.

Apollo astronaut Bill Anders, who captured one of the most famous images ever recorded in space, has died at age 90.

His son, Greg Anders, told NPR his dad died Friday in a plane crash in Washington state. He was piloting the Beech A45 when it crashed into the water off Jones Island. The National Transportation Safety Board says it's investigating the crash.

"Our family is devastated. He was a great man and a great pilot," he told NPR.

In a statement on X, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Bill Anders "offered to humanity among the deepest of gifts an astronaut can give. 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."

Bill Anders flew in space just once. It was a nerve-wracking trip, the first time humans ever left low Earth orbit. The quarter-million mile flight reached the moon on Christmas Eve 1968, and controllers in Houston wanted to know what the moon looked like up close.

Gray. The astronauts thought it just looked gray — then mission commander Frank Borman rolled the capsule over and they got a different perspective.

"Borman rotated the spacecraft, turned it around and I was the first to see the Earth coming up and I remarked, 'Wow, look at that!'" Anders told NPR in 2015.

Earth was blue and white, rising above the barren lunar horizon.

The crew had been taking pictures for use in planning future lunar landings, but they were mostly black-and-white images.

Hustling to capture the shot, Anders is heard on the on-board recorder asking fellow astronaut Jim Lovell, "Hand me a roll of color quick. Would you? ... Quick. Quick."

Anders wasn't sure what the proper aperture setting should be to have both the moon and Earth in focus. "So," he remembered in 2015, "I machine-gunned it, snapping, I just rotated the F-stop. And as it turned out, one of those pictures was selected by NASA to be the iconic Earthrise picture."

That photo was immortalized on a postage stamp and on countless magazine covers and in newspapers. Even now, it's one of the most recognizable images humans have ever taken in space.

Author Francis French has written several books on NASA. He says the photo gave people on Earth a new way to look at their planet.

"Humanity had lived on the Earth forever," he says, "[but] we'd never known the Earth until we looked back at it and realized how tiny and fragile and precious and finite it is. And it's changed human thinking ever since."

Anders said he understood why so many people love that image: "The only color that we could see and contrasted by this really unfriendly, stark lunar horizon, made me think, 'You know, we really live on a beautiful little planet.'"

Anders graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and reached the rank of major general in the Air Force Reserve. After NASA, he was the first chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, served as U.S. Ambassador to Norway and became CEO of General Dynamics.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Russell Lewis
Russell Lewis is a Deputy National Editor on NPR's National Desk. He coordinates coverage of breaking news and long-range planning of domestic reporting. Lewis is the network's sports editor and he also guides NPR's reporting on transportation and human spaceflight.