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

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's been a big week for space flight. The new Boeing Starliner capsule carried a crew to the International Space Station for the first time. It was years late and way over budget, and the spacecraft was plagued by helium leaks on its journey. Starliner returns to Earth with its crew later this month. SpaceX launched its massive Starship rocket for the fourth time, achieving its goals. Starship is one of the rockets NASA hopes to use to get humans back to the moon.

And one of the first men to go to the moon has died. Bill Anders was on Apollo 8, the first crewed mission to orbit the moon, and took one of the most famous pictures ever captured in space. He died Friday after a plane he was piloting crashed off Jones Island in Washington state. Bill Anders was 90. NPR's Russell Lewis has this remembrance.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Bill Anders flew in space just once. It was a nerve-racking trip, the first time humans ever left low Earth orbit. The quarter million-mile flight reached the moon on Christmas Eve 1968.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY CARR: Apollo 8, Houston. What does the ol' moon look like from 60 miles? Over.

LEWIS: Gray. The astronauts thought it just looked gray. There was not much color on this trip until Commander Frank Borman rolled the capsule over, and they got a different perspective, as Anders told NPR in 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BILL ANDERS: Borman rotated the spacecraft, turned it around, and I was the first to see the Earth coming up and remark, wow, look at that.

LEWIS: The Earth was blue and white, rising above the barren lunar horizon. It caught everyone off guard, including Bill Anders, as captured by the onboard recorder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDERS: Oh, God, look at that picture over there. There's the Earth coming up. Wow, that's pretty.

LEWIS: The crew had been taking pictures for planning future lunar landings, but they were mostly black-and-white images. So Anders and fellow astronaut Jim Lovell hustled to switch one of the film magazines to color.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDERS: You got a color film, Jim? Hand me a roll of color quick, will you?

JIM LOVELL: Oh, man, that's great.

ANDERS: Hurry. Quick.

LEWIS: Anders knew getting that image was important. He wasn't sure what the proper aperture setting should be to have the moon and the Earth both be in focus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANDERS: And so I just snapped off some color pictures, not knowing what the F-stop should be. So 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.

LEWIS: That picture was immortalized on a postage stamp, shown 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.

FRANCIS FRENCH: And even though we thought we knew the Earth - humanity had lived on the Earth forever - 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.

LEWIS: Anders understands why so many people loved the Earth picture he took that day in 1968.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANDERS: 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.

LEWIS: Bill Anders graduated from the 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.

Russell Lewis, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET AND TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "MO' BETTER BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.