When you are one of the first three of your species to leave your planet and travel to another, certain things tend to stick with you, even a half-century later. Just ask Bill Anders.
THE PASSAGE of time has rounded the sharp edges of some details. But on certain nights, Maj. Gen. William A. Anders, USAF, Ret., stands outside his Orcas Island home, gazes across the ink-black night sky over San Juan Channel and feels a brilliant new moon pull his mind all the way back into its orbit.
When you are one of the first three of your species to leave your planet and travel to another, certain things tend to stick with you, even a half-century later. For Anders, the brightest highlights of his historic flight on Apollo 8, from the Earth to the moon, 44 years ago this month, are more vivid than the most recent mooring of his boat, Apogee, at Deer Harbor.
It’s what happens when you cast the first human eyes on the pockmarked back side of the moon. Or see the Earth from farther away in space than anyone before and capture its fragility in a photograph that alters forever the way Earthlings view their own planet.
“My mind is getting fuzzier,” Anders, 79 going on 59, says with a chuckle. “But various things stick. Particularly when I look over here at this horizon and I see that it’s a very new moon. You get a little hair standing up on the back of your neck. Because that’s the way it was when we went there.”
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The moon will always cast a long shadow over the Anders family. That has been both a great blessing and the source of some angst. Being an Apollo astronaut is the ultimate American typecasting; so huge was the role that most who played it never really became much of anything else.
Not so with Anders, whose post-space résumé — diplomat, corporate CEO, and so on — would make him captain of just about any Cold Warrior’s dream team. You couldn’t blame him for yearning for a little credit for something other than that little trip through space in his 35th year.
But he is astute enough to understand the nature of fame, an ongoing public fascination with America’s improbable push to the moon and its seeming abandonment of a greater space quest.
This year, immediately in the wake of the death of a close friend, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, Anders did what for him qualifies as a rare thing: sat still long enough to relive his spaceflight and offer a candid take on larger questions of the universe — all from the unique perspective one can get only by looking back at our planet from deep space.
WE MIGHT AS well start with the flight. It was a very big deal. Before Apollo 8 went skyward in December 1968, the farthest away any man had ever gone from Earth was 850 miles, on a Gemini flight.
Interstellar chump change. The Apollo 8 crew (Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell) would travel nearly 240,000 miles into space. John Glenn’s Earth orbit had been a small step. This was the big leap.
And let’s get real about what pushed us in the first place: “Apollo was all about beating the Russians to the moon,” says Anders, a nuclear engineer who once headed a critical U.S. commission on the future of post-Apollo spaceflight. “It was not to get rocks. We went to the moon to stick the flag in.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s an important point, because the frantic space race literally defined Apollo 8’s mission in an era when the 1957 flight of the basketball-sized Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 sent Americans to work digging bunkers in their backyards.
The first and only spaceflight of Bill Anders was intended to be an earth-orbit test of NASA’s lunar landing vehicle, paving the way for Apollo 11’s landing. But about six months before its scheduled blastoff, U.S. spies reported that the USSR was poised to launch its own manned flight to orbit the moon. Apollo 8’s launch was hastily moved up, its mission revamped to get there first.
In less than three months, NASA engineers threw together the intricate — and untested — mechanics of the first true moon shot. Anders, Borman and Lovell would be the first humans strapped atop America’s massive new Saturn V rocket.
“I figured there were three possibilities, about equally weighted,” Anders says with the sort of casual tone most people would use to describe a choice of sandwich meat. “One, we could go and have a successful mission — one-third chance — which is what happened. Or, we could go, survive and not have a successful mission — that’s Apollo 13. Or, we could go and we wouldn’t come back; splat somewhere.”
Anders’ assessment: “Pretty good odds.”
A Naval Academy graduate who had earned an Air Force commission, Anders had cut his Cold War combat-duty teeth flying F-89 “Scorpion” fighter jets over Iceland in the late 1950s. A routine sortie involved sneaking up on Russian bombers, then flipping the bird to Soviet pilots who didn’t really know what it meant — probably a good thing, given that all parties involved were packing nuclear weapons.
To steal a phrase from “The Right Stuff,” the envelope, in Anders’ mind, had already been pushed. Flying to the moon? Pencil it in.
He left wife Valerie — still along for the ride today, after 57 years — behind with two messages, one to read if he came back, one if he didn’t.
THE LAUNCH, Anders says, was unexpectedly and shockingly violent. NASA had simulated everything except the cacophony of noise and car-crash physics felt by astronauts atop the 30-story rocket.
“We were being hurled around in that thing,” he says. “We could not function.”
The ride would smooth out and within 40 minutes Anders was 20,000 miles away from home, trucking along at 24,000 mph. For three days, the Earth shrunk away in Apollo 8’s rearview mirror.
Once in orbit, one of Anders’ primary jobs was to photograph the moon’s surface, particularly the back side, which no one had ever seen. (The moon is locked in synchronous orbit with the Earth; we see only its “front” face.) Because of the orientation of the planets during this flight, the back side of the moon when Apollo 8 arrived was not dark, but brilliantly lit by the sun.
When they got close, each astronaut described the surface as cold, forbidding, lifeless. The back side was even more so — ridged and violently pockmarked. Anders, flashing back to a California beach where he used to sneak off with Valerie, described the surface as “dirty beach sand.”
For the first two of its 10 orbits, the capsule circled the moon upside down and backward. On the third, a small burn of the engine righted the ship. Coming around the back of the moon, one of the astronauts caught a glimpse out a window of Earth — a tiny, magnificent, delicate blue ball — appearing to rise above the forbidding lunar surface.
Anders grabbed his Hasselblad camera, snapped on the longest lens and began firing pictures through a small window.
While he had been meticulously trained to photograph the moon, making pretty pictures of the Earth from space had not occurred to anyone at NASA. So Anders, with no light meter and really no idea where to start, improvised.
“I had to bracket (the exposure),” he says. “I’m just going click-click-click-click-click, just changing that f-stop up and back. I machine-gunned that mother.”
Weeks later, a NASA film technician exposed Anders’ frames. One of about 10 fired in that sequence stood out.
That photograph, labeled “Earthrise” on a famed U.S. postage stamp, would become one of the most-oft-published images of all time. (It also has been, Anders recently learned, printed backward for more than 40 years because of a NASA mistake.)
To this day, Anders calls “Earthrise” a “crappy photo,” saying it’s slightly off-focus. He is being modest. There is no denying the power of the image.
The photo showed Earthlings, for the first time, just how fragile — and beautiful — their planet appeared from afar. It became the symbol of the first Earth Day in 1970 and is given credit for helping propel the environmental movement itself — something Anders embraces.
“I’ve always used the phrase, ‘ironic,’ ” Anders says. “We came all this way to discover the moon. And what we really did discover is Earth.”
AN EVEN MORE memorable Apollo 8 moment came during a Christmas Eve television broadcast. While beaming grainy, close-up images of the lunar surface to an audience estimated at a billion people, the crew took turns reading the first 10 verses of the book of Genesis. Anders spoke first:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens 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 “
The Bible’s creation story, as a vocal backdrop to the dramatic lunar images, was a powerful narrative. Some viewers accepted it as it was intended, as a tribute to the human creation story common to many cultural and religious traditions on Earth. Some did not; atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair later filed a federal lawsuit, which was dismissed.
A lot of squawking over nothing, Anders says. Borman, the flight commander, had been advised to think of something memorable to say on that occasion. He chose Genesis more for its poetry than piety, Anders says. The message was meant to be universal.
Ironically, Anders’ six days in space forever altered his own view of his place in the universe. Raised a Catholic, Anders says he held generally to a traditional Christian viewpoint of the Earth being created by a God who fashioned Earthlings in his own image.
The view from space changed everything.
Earth, seen from the moon, Anders explains, looks to be about the size of your fist at arm’s length. Two lunar distances away, it’s half that size; at eight, it’s one-eighth of that. And so on. Even at 100 lunar distances, still far short of Mars or any other planet, Earth is rendered as a dust speck — beyond insignificant against the vast scale of the universe.
It is one thing to imagine this. It’s another to get far enough into space to feel it.
“When I looked back and saw that tiny Earth, it snapped my world view,” Anders says. “Here we are, on kind of a 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.”
“Are we really that special? I don’t think so.”
THAT UNIQUE view was a fringe benefit of Anders’ NASA experience, which he saw at the time as more of a patriotic duty. In hindsight, the perspective helped him realize he had peaked in the space program.
He could have held on for a later ride — as a command-module pilot, “a job I’d already done.” But Anders had foreseen Apollo’s end even before the moon landing, realizing that public allure — and the funding that came with it — would be limited. In 1969, he accepted President Nixon’s appointment to serve as executive secretary of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, charged with determining America’s post-Apollo role.
Anders went along with the consensus that the space program should be “brought back down to Earth” to focus on weather, communications and military satellites. The question was whether to go whole hog on a large shuttle or build a smaller craft to test the waters and judge NASA’s claim that a shuttle would slash the cost of space delivery tenfold.
Anders, still mulling both approaches, vividly recalls a call from H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, bluntly asking which option would provide more aerospace jobs in California. When he gave the obvious answer — the big shuttle — that was it. Click, decision made.
The shuttle program was launched, the jobs were secured and NASA embarked on what Anders calls a four-decade-long detour. The shuttle was a spectacular vehicle, with an equally spectacular price tag: It wound up increasing the cost of spaceflight tenfold. “That is a 100-fold error,” Anders says, with clear disgust.
Anders was no fan of George W. Bush’s announced plan to return to the moon as a springboard to Mars. And unlike many of his fellow NASA alums, who sharply criticized the Obama administration for shelving those plans, he argues for a leaner space agency that’s less of a budgetary monster. In the short term, he says, America is doing the correct, and affordable, thing by launching unmanned probes such as the Curiosity rover, and farming the heavy lifting of near space to private industry.
He warns against another space race to the next available planet.
“If humans are going to Mars to explore, then they ought to do it as united humans, not just jingoistic Americans,” he says, adding, “I don’t see it happening for another couple hundred years — if we’re still around.”
THE POLITICS of space soured Anders’ taste for government, and most things NASA. Unlike other retired space cowboys, he has spent little energy cashing in on that fame, shunning paid personal appearances, interviews and other trappings of celebrity. He put his energy instead into a post-flight career that ranks as the most impressive of any former astronaut.
After his space commission appointment, Anders served on the Atomic Energy Commission, became the first head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and was ambassador to Norway. He later became an executive at General Electric and Textron, and in the early 1990s became chairman and CEO of General Dynamics, builder of Trident nuclear submarines and a raft of other military hardware.
When he retired in 1993 — comfortably, thanks to his last corporate stop — he returned to Washington state, a place that held fond memories from his childhood when his father was stationed in the Navy in Bremerton. Anders eventually settled on Orcas, where for nearly 20 years he has lived an active but mostly private life.
The fighter pilot in him has never died; Anders still spends about 100 hours a year in a pilot’s seat, mostly in the vintage planes he bought and donated to the Heritage Flight Museum, a Bellingham collection he manages along with his son, Greg, also a military-jet-pilot veteran. The museum’s planes are all kept flying, appearing at air shows, fly-ins and other events.
His favorite ride is the museum’s showpiece, a vintage P-51 Mustang, “Val-Halla,” named in honor of wife Valerie and reflecting Anders’ call sign, “Viking,” as a young fighter pilot. It’s a hot rod befitting its pilot: Anders continued to fly souped-up piston planes in the Reno Air Races until a few years ago.
The Anderses spend winters in San Diego, his old hometown, but love the San Juans like nowhere else. (It doesn’t hurt, of course, that they can hop in Anders’ de Havilland Beaver to pick up a bale of toilet paper and other necessities on mainland Costco runs.)
Anders speaks with the ease of a man at peace with his place in history. The initial disappointment of missing a moon landing, he says, has been softened by the fame attached to being one of the first humans to go there — one of only 24 to this day.
“I figured it’s not a bad second prize. So I quit worrying about it.”
For the most part, he’s too busy living the good life — travel, pleasure boating, fundraising, flying, keeping tabs on six kids and their families — to waste time dusting off musty memorabilia. But you can never un-see that view from space.
The tiny Apollo 8 capsule that took him around the moon is in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, on static display. The view it afforded him lives on, and it is unique.
In quiet moments on those dark nights, new moon rising, the big picture pondered by Bill Anders is not theoretical. It’s a really big one he has already captured, from a quarter-million miles out.
Ron Judd is a Pacific NW staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.