Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders shares views on his historic trip around the moon, his famous "Earthrise" photo, NASA and the politics of space, religion and the possibility of intelligent life in outer space.
A lot of great information about Bill Anders’ Apollo 8 mission, as described in the Dec. 9 Pacific NW Magazine is available, and much of it couldn’t be shoehorned into a single story. But some of his thoughts from our interviews, given their candor and historical value, were too good not to repeat. So here is a collection of supplementary material, ranging from multimedia links to Anders’ own thoughts.
— Ron Judd
Apollo 8 in multimedia
“We have commit; we have we have lift off!” The memorable words of Launch Control announcer Jack King ring out as Apollo 8’s powerful Saturn V rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral on Dec. 21, 1968, as captured in this ABC News coverage anchored by Frank Reynolds.
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— “I thought we’d had it during the launch,” Bill Anders recalls in this video clip showing high-quality footage of the spectacular Saturn V rocket lift off, from the Discovery Channel documentary “When We Left Earth.”
— “Oh my God!” says Anders or Frank Borman (it’s still not clear) as Apollo 8, orbiting at 68 miles above the lunar surface, comes around the moon and the crew sees, for the first time, Earth “rising” above the side of the lunar surface. NASA recreated the moment four decades later, using imagery from its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to create a video with an audio overlay of the Apollo 8 crew. Note that NASA, in the video, leaves Earthrise in the horizontal format for which it is famous. Also included on the website linked here is the first, black-and-white photo of the “Earthrise,” shot by Borman. It’s in the vertical orientation preferred by astronauts, who said that’s the way the scene appeared to them. Anders’ image was reproduced on a postage stamp in 1969 and was the cover photo for the Life Magazine book, “100 Photographs that Changed the World,” in which photographer Galen Rowell called it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”
— “And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Bill Anders reads from Genesis in this memorable this memorable NASA audio clip from an archived television transmission from Apollo 8, recorded on Christmas Eve, 1968 as the spacecraft orbited 60 miles above the lunar surface, showing earthlings the first stark televised images of the back side of the moon.
— The home page for the 2005 PBS American Experience documentary, Race to the Moon includes links to audio clips and other Apollo 8 documentation.
— Bill Anders’ Wikipedia page has an extensive account of his career in and out of the space program.
— The Heritage Flight Museum website includes information on visiting the museum Anders founded at the Bellingham International Airport. The site includes flight schedules for the museum’s historic war birds, some of which Anders still flies. Anders says the museum’s long-term future at the airport is uncertain, due to what he called commitments made, but not honored, by the Port of Bellingham.
— A number of theatrical productions about the Apollo program contain mostly faithful recreations of the Apollo 8 flight. Two of the best are HBO’s “From the Earth To the Moon” series, with Tom Hanks as executive producer (Apollo 8 is depicted in episode 4, “1968”); and the Discovery Channel documentary, “When We Left Earth”. Both series are available on DVD.
— Among the better books detailing Apollo 8’s mission are “In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969,” by Francis French and Colin Burgess; and “A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts,” by Andrew Chaikin.
— For an adventure of such great national import, Apollo 8 had what would qualify today as a decidedly modest press kit — 101 typed and mimeographed pages about the mission. Check out those low-tech graphics!
More fun facts
— In addition to the fame attached to his “Earthrise” photo, Anders was awarded an Emmy for his work filming the lunar surface from Apollo 8. “I stuck a camera out the window and got it right-side up,” he says sheepishly. The statuette is a major conversation piece in his house.
— Anders was born on Oct. 17, 1933, in Hong Kong, where his father, Lt. Arthur A. “Tex” Anders, was stationed as a U.S. Navy officer. The elder Anders had an interesting role of his own in naval history: He was second in command of the USS Panay, a Navy gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River that was attacked by Japanese war planes (by mistake, they would say later) in December, 1937. The ship was heavily damaged and eventually sank. Lt. Anders, badly wounded, swam to shore and was rescued by local Chinese citizens. Bill Anders, then 4, sneaked out of the country with his mother, Muriel, in a harrowing adventure that included a boat trip down the mine-strewn Pearl River. A Hollywood movie, “The Sand Pebbles,” starring Steve McQueen, was loosely based on the Panay incident, which is credited with turning U.S. sentiment against Japan in the years preceding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
— Among the NASA mementos in the Anders home are some prepackaged Apollo 8 meals, including a somewhat nasty-looking powdered pouch of what is labeled as banana pudding. You could probably add water and still eat it, four decades later, he says. But you might not want to.
— As indicated in the story, Anders’ famous “Earthrise” image has, for its entire lifetime in worldwide publication, been printed backward. The error was not discovered until recently, when Goddard Space Flight Center engineers mapping and filming the moon’s surface via satellite attempted to re-create the famous image with high-resolution cameras, but could not duplicate the exact composition of the photograph, even on Apollo 8’s orbit path. A NASA technician in 1968 simply flipped one of the 10 or so 70mm negatives of the scene, Anders believes.
— Also, the photograph, to be faithful to the way the Apollo 8 crew actually saw Earth rising over the moon that day, really should be viewed sideways, as depicted on the cover of Pacific NW magazine. The spacecraft, in the eyes of astronauts, was coming “around” the moon, not flying over it. But technically, those are earth-centric semantics. In truth, it’s accurate either way, as there’s no real “up” or “down” in the zero gravity of space.
Wisdom from the cutting-room floor
Bill Anders on:
• Being the first humans to ride on a Saturn V rocket:
That is a BIG machine. You’ve got those five big engines down there. We’d been briefed, went to the factory, we had reasonable confidence that, even though it was built by the lowest bidder, you know all that . . . that, you know, it would work.
They had (launched) unmanned Saturn V’s. There were some little problems. NASA wouldn’t have sent us if they thought it was a really high probability (of failure). But you know, this is an analog device. It had less brains than this (digital wristwatch). But we simulated everything we could think of. Frank Borman really was in charge of the boost phase, trajectory, going to the moon, insertion, the high-powered stuff. I was kind of the plumbing guy and the electrical guy. And Frank felt good about the Saturn V.
We simulated hundreds of different failures, most of them resolvable. But within the first second of the launch, I’m thinking, “Holy s — , you know, we never simulated the noise, the terrific vibrations. We were being hurled around in that thing. We could not function. I mean we could hang on . . . Frank was smart enough to take his hand off the abort handle. Because we were just being thrown back and forth — strapped in tightly, fortunately.
Think of a lady bug on the top of your car antenna. And someone’s down there banging on the bottom of it. These big F-1 engines, one and a half million pounds of thrust each. Little movements here (he points to the bottom of a figurative rocket) are big movements up there (he points to the top). I likened it to a rat being shaken in the jaws of a big terrier. And it was so loud, even if I wanted to scream — I didn’t, but nobody would’ve heard me. It was a surprise.
But within less than a minute, we were up clear of the tower. I had a vision of the fins banging the girders of the tower. It was violent. But we got up and started getting some aerodynamic stability, and didn’t get the reflected noise, so then it was just the G-force building up. So we knew we were on our way. The Saturn V was a sporty piece of machinery.
The danger inherent in being the first human crew to the moon:
Remember, not that we’re sort of superhuman guys or something. But we were fighter pilots. I’d been in a lot more dangerous situations than that, with Russian guns pointed at me, and some conscript, probably pissed off that he was there, with his finger on the trigger. It impressed me more just as a beautiful view.
The ways that seeing the Earth from such a great distance changed his world view:
My favorite picture was not Earthrise. It’s one where the Earth is sort of blurry and small. The smaller the Earth gets, the more it substantiates my new view that here we are, a kind of physically inconsequential planet, going around a not-particularly-significant star, going around a galaxy of billions of stars, that’s not a particularly significant galaxy, in a universe where there’s billions and billions of galaxies. And so, I mean, are we really that special? I don’t think so. And yet, we act like it.
The reaction to his crew’s reading from Genesis:
People had me down as some sort of super-religious figure because I read from Genesis. I read from Genesis because Frank Borman thought it would be a good idea to come up with something that was quite serious at this serious time. I did it not to convert people to Christianity, because the creation myths are pretty much the same all over. In fact, if somebody hadn’t pinned (the Genesis creation story) down to seven days, and had thrown in a few Higgs-Bosons, I might agree with it, you know, literally!
(Borman) has claimed that the biggest accomplishment of Apollo 8 — because I was a strong Catholic in those days — was to get me to read from the King James Version of the Bible (laughs).
Whether the crew had any inkling the “Earthrise” images of Earth they captured would have such dramatic impact back home:
Oh, no. Again, it was totally unscripted. I’ve used the phrase, it’s ironic that we came all this way to discover the moon, and of course it’s just dirty beach sand over and over again, and what we really did is discover the Earth, in the sense that it showed everybody that it’s a small and beautiful, fragile-looking place. No one had ever seen that before..
How the back of the moon looks compared to the side we all see:
Surprisingly different. Much rougher. The front of the moon, we talk about beach sand, and it’s mostly smooth. The back of the moon is rough as hell.
The three-day return trip to Earth:
That was boring. You’re done, and you’re just sitting kind of wishing you were back home. Somebody asked, ‘Who’s flying the spacecraft?’ I said, ‘Isaac Newton.’
We came in at night. I don’t know if there’s been another at night. How in the hell did we manage to miss all the land mines? (First this, first that.)
It was pretty spectacular. Like being a tiny bug in a blowtorch flame. Every once in a while, big softball-sized chunks (of fire) would fly off. I was quoted as saying it looked like softball-sized pieces of the heat shield flew off. But the fact of the matter was it was tiny little chunks that would totally ionize.”
My hair stood up on the back of my neck a little. It was 6,000 degrees. There’s nothing on Earth that could take that.
Violent? A little bit, but not like the launch. It’s about 6 Gs’. We’d been in a simulator up to 16 Gs. You’re pretty much just hanging on. Now if you tried to reach for a switch or something, that’s a different matter because your arm weighed six or nine times normal.
Watching the moon landing of Apollo 11, for which Anders served as a backup crewman, six months later:
I was with Jan (Mrs. Neil) Armstrong, sitting on a bed, in front of a big TV with all the other wives around. It was not as tense as they made it seem (with the lunar module down to 30 seconds’ worth of fuel before landing). We flew those things (lunar module simulators) down to 10 seconds.
His decision to leave NASA amid Apollo:
I was backup crew for Apollo 11, then assigned to Apollo 13. But it was a job that I’d already done — to go back as a command module pilot. I thought, do I really want to do that? I’d much rather have been a junior guy landing on the moon. When I was offered this chance to come to Washington, to run this aeronautics and space council, I said OK, as long as I have the option of coming back. I never came back.
Personal regrets about missing a moon landing:
I was disappointed to not have a chance to go right back to the moon. But it allowed me to do all the other things I was able to do. If I’d have gone and stayed there (at NASA), I’d be like the rest of ‘em, most of them broke . . . obviously, we’re not broke — and do things like run General Dynamics and a bunch of other stuff.
In retrospect, I’ve learned to live with whatever fame comes from having been the first to leave Earth, to take the Earthrise picture. Would I trade that for a chance to scuff around on the moon — I do like rocks. I might. But I figured, that’s not a bad second prize. So I kind of quit worrying about it.
NASA’s diminished status
You asked the question: What happened to the space program? It’s finally run into reality. The reality is that people like it, they’ll go to a launch, they’ll want to get an astronaut’s autograph. But they’re not willing to pay for it. Especially with the bureaucratic NASA we’ve got now. And you know, NASA’s got to realize that we ain’t The No. 1 only power in the world. We bombed our competitors flat for a while and made competition easy. But now . . . we’ve got a better system than most. But we don’t have the people that China has. We don’t have the resources that Russia has. We don’t have the lack of OSHA interest that India has . . . We won’t get our ass whipped, but we’re going to be taken down to size a bit. And we have a space program that fits that.
In my view they (NASA) got kind of an entitlement attitude: Like, ‘Well, we got 6 percent of the budget this year, we should get that every year — plus an escalation.’
The Obama administration’s decision to contract much of NASA’s former role to private industry:
I’m not a big Obama fan, but in my view, that’s the way it’s going to have to be done. That’s what made the airlines and aerospace industry. If the airmail was still being paid for by the government, we wouldn’t have a Boeing. If the Air Force was going to build not only B-52s but also 747s and 707s, we wouldn’t have the airline industry.”
The origins of the Space Shuttle, and how it threw NASA “off-track”:
The space program has been off the track for about four decades. I was party to getting it off the track. By being off the track I mean we probably shouldn’t have done the Space Shuttle. Don’t get me wrong: It’s a spectacular vehicle. If somebody asked me if I wanted to fly it, or fly in it, and have one more flight . . . I’d say sure, you know. But in trying to take a bigger view, NASA came to a crossroads right after Apollo.
Keep in mind, Apollo was not a program of exploration. That’s been one of the big misconceptions. Apollo was to beat the Russians to the moon, fill the missile gap, that sort of thing . . . When Buzz (Aldrin) and Neil (Armstrong) did that, Apollo was basically fulfilled. They kept a few more flights going so that we could prove to the U.S. and to the rest of the world that it wasn’t just a fluke, that capitalism was better, all that stuff, that whatever was motivating Kennedy was actually the case.
Apollo 13 scared Nixon. That, plus budget pressures, plus the fact that the program had been accomplished, terminated the program. That raised the question: Well then, what should NASA do post-Apollo? I had the view that, now that we’ve stuck the flag in the moon, and it’s very expensive to go to the moon, let’s bring the space program down to earth and do things like land sats and weather sats and comm sats. I took a job in the Nixon Administration with a thing called the Aeronautics and Space Council that was supposed to come up with the future program after Apollo. I was the executive secretary, and then (Vice President) Spiro Agnew (the official panel head) got caught being a cheap crook, so he was out of the way. So I had a lot more rein than your normal low-level presidential appointee. What was the right thing for NASA? Well, NASA wanted to keep doing big deals.
The question was, should they throw away the Saturn V, the big throwaway rocket, and come up with something else? At first glance, something else reusable made sense. A truck to orbit. NASA started doing studies: How to deliver a satellite to orbit. Not only for communications, but also for the military. The initial program was to do both civilian and military on some kind of reusable vehicle, which eventually became known as the Space Shuttle. Shuttle ‘em up, shuttle ‘em back. This seemingly made sense because by NASA’s calculation, it would reduce the cost of orbit by a factor of 10.
The politics of the Space Shuttle:
I went over and briefed the president’s senior staff — guys like (H.R. “Bob”) Haldeman, (John) Ehrlichman, Pete Peterson . . . you’ve heard of these guys. I went over to the (White House) Indian Treaty Room. I had a model, a big model and a little model. Because there were some people, more rational, in retrospect, like a guy by the name of Don Rice, director of the military part of the budget, who later became Secretary of the Air Force, who said if we’re going to do a shuttle, we ought to do a little one first. Practice. And so I gave this briefing, on one hand, on the other hand, trying to be relatively balanced. NASA had assured me that they could do a big one. The contractors? Oh, they could do a big one. Why waste time and money with the little one?
I tried to present it in a fair way. A little one would test out things like tiles, boosters, that sort of thing. Hindsight, of course, is always 20-20. I get back to my office. I hadn’t been there 10 minutes, and I remember this like it was yesterday. My secretary comes in, ‘Oh Mr. Haldeman’s calling.’
I said, ‘Yes, sir, Mr. Haldeman; I didn’t say ‘Bob.’
He said, ‘Bill, those shuttles that you pitched, which one would develop the most aerospace jobs in California?
I said, ‘Well, Mr. Haldeman (not Bob) you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that the bigger the shuttle, the more jobs.’ I didn’t say votes, I said jobs, but I knew what he was talking about.
He said, ‘That’ll be the one!’ just like that (snaps fingers).
The Shuttle program’s down side:
So we got a Space Shuttle to keep the California aerospace industry going. And it proved to be a, you know, a terrific engineering challenge and accomplishment.
But it turned out that it was still a test vehicle, and it was still fragile, and dangerous. And expensive. What happened in retrospect is that it not only didn’t decrease the cost of orbit by a factor of 10, it increased it by a factor of 10. That is a 100-fold error.
I refer to the shuttle as the spectacular cuckoo in the nest: It would elbow out other programs.
They had to have the Space Station so they had a place for the shuttle to go. And of course with the Space Station they had to have the shuttle. It was sort of circular argument. I’ve been sort of the bad guy on the block, saying, you know, we ought to retire the shuttle.
It’s sad, because that program certainly was spectacular, people liked to watch it, and ooh and aah, but it was horribly expensive.
On America’s current standing in the space business:
I think it’s embarrassing for the United States to have gone down this Cadillac road of the Space Shuttle just to find out that they’re in a dead end cul-de-sac with no space to turn around in, and to find out that they’re going to have to hitchhike rides with the Russians. On going to Mars and NASA’s near-term mission:
The thing we didn’t realize is that it’s damn expensive to do the big stuff, long-range stuff. The Curiosity (rover), that’s the way we ought to do it, for a while, to Mars: Unmanned to Mars, because the Mars job (with manned flight) is a lot bigger than NASA would like to admit.
I think it’s ridiculous that America would start racing the Chinese to Mars. If humans are going to Mars to explore, then they ought to do it as humans. Not just jingoistic Americans. Now, I don’t see the world getting along with each other sufficiently to do that any time soon. We can’t even solve our problems here on Earth. But this whole idea of ‘on-to-Mars’ societies and that Obama’s just not doing his job because he’s not going to Mars, I think is just ridiculous. If we need rocks from the moon, send an unmanned probe up there. But make sure the guys who want the rocks are paying for the probe.
Is there other “intelligent” life
There’s got to be. It’s just a mathematical certainty. When there’s billions of galaxies, and billions of stars in each galaxy . . . those are big numbers . . . My guess is that there are hundreds of thousands of intelligences greater than us right now, and that there have been hundreds of thousands of intelligences greater than us that have come and gone, and probably billions that are less intelligent.
Why none of that life has sought us out:
We’re way out in the middle of nowhere around a not particularly noteworthy star around a not particularly noteworthy galaxy. To me it’s not strange that E.T. hasn’t bothered to come check us out — it’s a low probability. Besides, why would anyone smart enough bother, particularly when we seem so screwed up here? Come back in a million years!