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HomeHistoryApollo 8 Astronaut William Anders Dies in Plane Crash at 90

Apollo 8 Astronaut William Anders Dies in Plane Crash at 90

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William Anders, famed NASA astronaut and crew member of the historic Apollo 8 mission, tragically lost his life last week doing what he loved most – flying. Anders died when the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor he was piloting crashed off the coast of Jones Island, Washington, on June 7 at about 11:39 a.m. PDT. Anders, age 90, was the sole occupant. According to the flight tracking website Flight Aware, Ander’s plane departed Skagit Regional Airport just prior to the crash at 11:17 a.m.

One witness, who caught the crash on video, implied that Anders may have been performing an aerobatic maneuver at the time of the crash. Speaking to Seattle’s KING5 News, the cameraman said: “It went into a barrel roll, sort of a loop. It was inverted, went into this barrel roll loop thing. Tried to pull up before it hit the water, but it was too low and it started to loop, and it didn’t clear the water. It looked like it clipped a wing at first and went down very hard, burst into flames, broke apart, and instantly went underwater,” he said. The man’s video posted online corroborates his description and clearly shows Ander’s plane impacting the water at the bottom of a loop maneuver. The FAA and NTSB are investigating, and no official word has been released as to the cause of the crash.

The United States Coast Guard, with the help of multiple agencies, conducted a thorough search covering 215 nautical miles. Anders’ body was eventually recovered by a dive team. The plane Anders was flying at the time of the crash was owned by his family’s non-profit, The Heritage Flight Museum.

William Anders, born on October 17, 1933, in Hong Kong, graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1955. After his commission in the US Air Force, he earned his pilot wings in 1956 and served as a fighter pilot in the Air Defense Command in California and Iceland. His work at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in New Mexico involved managing nuclear power reactor shielding and radiation effects programs.

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Selected as an astronaut by NASA in 1964, Anders was a backup pilot for the Gemini 11 mission in 1966 and the Apollo 11 flight in 1969. He logged over 8,000 flight hours throughout his career.

Anders is most renowned for his role as the lunar module pilot on Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon. In December 1968, on Christmas Eve, Anders, along with Mission Commander Jim Lovell and pilot Frank Borman, became the first humans to see the far side of the Moon with their own eyes.

While orbiting the moon, Anders captured the iconic “Earthrise” photograph, depicting Earth rising above the moon’s surface on Christmas Eve, 1968. As the crew emerged from the dark side of a barren moon to see the brilliant blue globe of Earth, Anders exclaimed, “ Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!” Anders later described his view of Earth that day as a “very delicate, colorful orb, which to me looked like a Christmas tree ornament, coming up over this very stark, ugly lunar landscape.”

The image Anders took was among the first ever detailed color images of the earth from lunar orbit and a stark reminder to the crew of humanity’s small place in space. The photo eventually became an iconic symbol of the fragility of our planet.

It was also during that mission that commander Jim Lovell held up his thumb and covered the entire earth, postulating on the significance…that the sum total of all human history and knowledge was hidden by his thumb while the vast unexplored universe filled the rest of his view.

That same night, during a live television broadcast, a clearly moved Apollo 8 crew took turns reading the first verses from the book of Genesis. Anders said, “For all the people on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you.”

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

After Anders’ crewmates took turns reading several of the passages that followed, the historic broadcast concluded when command module pilot Frank Borman added, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”

Many regard that worldwide television broadcast as one of the most profound ever, as it brought a moment of peace and a message of unity to a country torn apart by politics and social strife at the height of the Vietnam war.

“We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth,” Anders famously said. His photograph and this sentiment highlighted the mission’s profound impact, shifting the perspective of humanity’s place in the universe.

After leaving NASA in 1969, Anders served as Executive Secretary for the National Aeronautics and Space Council until 1973. President Gerald Ford later appointed him as the first chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Throughout his career, Anders was recognized with numerous awards, including the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal.

Anders and his wife, Valerie, had six children. He founded the William A. Anders Foundation, focusing on educational and environmental issues, and established the Heritage Flight Museum in 1996, which remains run by the Anders family.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson commemorated Anders’ legacy, stating on social media, “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.”​​

Dr. Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, said in a post on “X” – “ Very saddened about the passing of my friend, USAF Major Gen Bill Anders. Bill, you will always be an inspiration and you will be missed. My deepest condolences to Bill’s family during this difficult time.”

Apollo 8 became the first manned flight to orbit the moon in December 1968. [NASA]
Apollo 8 became the first manned flight to orbit the moon in December 1968. [NASA]
Apollo 8 Crew (L-R) Lunar Module Pilot William “Bill” Anders, Commander Jim Lovell, Command Module Pilot Frank Borman. [NASA]
Apollo 8 Crew (L-R) Lunar Module Pilot William “Bill” Anders, Commander Jim Lovell, Command Module Pilot Frank Borman. [NASA]
Maj Gen. Bill Anders (Ret) flying the Heritage Flight Museum’s T-34 Mentor. [Photo: Heritage Flight Museum / Facebook]
Maj Gen. Bill Anders (Ret) flying the Heritage Flight Museum’s T-34 Mentor.
[Photo: Heritage Flight Museum / Facebook]

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