Copyright 2018 © All rights reserved - APOLLO 8 EARTHRISE DAY
Before 1968, no person had ever seen the Earth in its true context – a small, lonely planet floating in the blackness of space. No one had sailed beyond the shallows of Earth orbit to travel somewhere else. But on December 21 of that turbulent year, three American astronauts fired the last stage of their Saturn rocket in Earth orbit and began history’s first voyage to another world.
The Apollo 8 mission teamed Gemini veterans Frank Borman and Jim Lovell with Bill Anders, who was making his first (and only) spaceflight. On Christmas Eve, they fired their service module engine to brake into lunar orbit, where they stayed for 20 hours, circling the Moon ten times. Three days later they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, having spent six days in a command module no larger than a family station wagon
What I wanted to know, perhaps, more than anything else, was what happens after you’ve been to the Moon. What do you do for an encore? Bill Anders didn’t answer that question, because I never asked. By the time we finished talking, it was obvious: You don’t stop. You keep working. As Anders understates it, “I’ve been busy in the past twenty years.”
After he left NASA in 1969, Anders was appointed executive secretary of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, and later became the first chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In the 1970s, he served briefly as the U.S. Ambassador to Norway. Today he’s a senior vice-president for a large aerospace firm in Providence, Rhode Island.
Like many astronauts, he has an air of easy confidence, and has a good sense of humor about his Apollo 8 crewmates and their mission. At 55, he looks athletic, and takes his sailboat out on weekends as often as he can.
In Anders’ office we talked about Giovanni da Verrazzano, who first explored the coast around Providence in the 1520s, and about other great adventurers of the past. When I reminded him that this particular August day was the 20th anniversary of his crew’s learning that their flight would go to the Moon, Anders seemed pleased. He hadn’t remembered.
TONY REICHHARDT, Final Frontier
Final Frontier: Are there particular Final moments when the memory of Apollo 8 comes back to you? Say, every time you see the full Moon?
Bill Anders: It’s not the full Moon. When we went, the Moon was very new, so I can look at a full Moon and not even think about having been there. But every time I see the sliver of a new Moon, particularly when it’s slivered to the right side, then I remember being out in the parking lot outside the crew training building down in Florida the night before the launch, sitting on the fender of a car with a friend of mine—my grad school physics professor—and his brother, looking up at the Moon and seeing that sliver.
Final Frontier: Is that crescent Moon what you remember from the flight?
Bill Anders: On the way there, because the Sun was almost behind the Moon, we were told not to look at it, and the spacecraft was oriented so you really couldn’t look at it. So we didn’t see the Moon until we were in lunar orbit. I had sort of imagined it like being in an automobile driving up to the mountains staring out the window, watching the Moon get bigger and bigger.
Actually we were going in rear-end first, getting ready for our retrograde [engine] burn to slow us down. We were in the shadow of the Moon and of the Earth. It was very dark. You could see stars everywhere except where the Moon was. It looked like we were falling into a big, black hole.
I’ve never had the hair stand up on the back of my neck, but just looking back there and realizing here was this body, like a freight train hurtling through space in the dark, and we were going to zip right in front of it and around, I thought, “I hope the navigation system works.”
Final Frontier: Let’s go back a few months before that. What was reaction when they told you that your mission was going to orbit the Moon?
Bill Anders: Well, I was very disappointed at first. I wanted to land on the Moon, because of the geology training and all of that. I had been teamed up with Neil Armstrong in Gemini, and we were probably going to fly on Gemini 13 if there had been one, but there wasn’t one. That was a disappointment. Then he and I were either the first two, or very near the first two, to check out in the lunar landing trainer, which looked like, a flying bedstead with an outhouse on it.
I got so I could fly it really well. So I thought, “You’ve got it made. Maybe you won’t be first, but within the first five you’ll make it on the Moon.” So I was really feeling good about that. I’d been assigned to the second lunar module, up at Grumman [Aerospace Corporation], to kind of shepherd it through its checkout. But the first one was having trouble. It bumped them all down on the schedule.
So NASA made the decision to switch Apollo 8, which was going to be an Earth-orbital checkout of the lunar module. They said, “Okay, we’ll send them to the Moon, kind of Hansel and Gretel style—we’ll lay out the breadcrumbs and make sure the Russians don’t pull a coup on us.” I don’t think [NASA] really tried to make it at Christmas time, but they also didn’t try to make it some other time—great PR possibilities there. And, taking your word for it, twenty years ago today, they let me know.
My first reaction was, “Hell, it’s going to be great to be the first to go around the Moon, but I’d sure rather wait for a landing flight.” That was a little shortsighted, but not totally. Because even today, given the choice between being the first around the Moon or being able to land on it, I’d opt for being even the last guy to land on it.
Final Frontier: I promis I won’t ask whether you were scared or anything like that. But did it really dawn on you that you were about to leave the Earth?
Bill Anders: I wasn’t particularly scared. Look, we’re all either test pilots or fighter pilots. I was flying up in Iceland. Flying in Iceland is more dangerous than going to the Moon, and certainly less dangerous in retrospect than Vietnam, where my colleagues were at that time. But I had thought about it. I mean, I just didn’t leap into this thing. I had five children and a wife, no insurance to speak of. Nobody would insure us. I don’t come from a wealthy back-ground. If I didn’t come back, the breadwinner wasn’t there. But I thought it through, with my wife, and basically decided that certainly from an adventure point of view it was an unequalled opportunity. I was kind of an adventure buff as a kid. I used to like to read about Magellan, and Lewis and Clark, and John Wesley Powell, and I thought, man, if I could just do that. So here was a chance to do that. From the point of view of flying, it was the epitome. Regardless of what Yeager said about “Spam in a Can,” this was one hell of a flight. So you couldn’t…you had to think twice about turning that down.
Also, and this may sound a little corny, but we had the Vietnam war building up, we had unrest in the colleges, and America was kind of down and slack-jawed. Here was a nationally important thing that the country was behind. In the early ‘70s the bloom was off the rose for Apollo, but, boy, in that time people really wanted to do it. So just from a red, white and blue standpoint, it was important.
So if you add all that up, I had decided that if the risk of failure was no worse than one out of three, that I’d be willing to take my chances; or, more importantly, I’d be willing to expose my family to that chance. It’s a dangerous business.
Final Frontier: I’m always impressed by the risks the Apollo program took twenty years ago. I’m not sure the space program can still take those risks.
Bill Anders: I’m not sure. Maybe in those days it couldn’t take it either, maybe if a Saturn 5 had blown up…remember, we were all test pilots, “mercenaries,” if you will. It’s one thing to kill a mercenary, but you kill one of the nation’s very own school teachers from New Hampshire, and that’s different.
Final Frontier: You were the first people to ride the new Saturn 5 rocket. What do you remember about that?
Bill Anders: Well, we had gone through [simulations in] the launch abort trainer and been shaken and thrown around and all that. But frankly, it was a little discouraging, because no sooner did we have ignition than things were different than the simulations. The lateral vibrations were much more violent. I mean they were violent! These big F-1 engines down there going ape trying to keep this thing straight up.
The noise was terrific. If anybody had yelled or screamed, you couldn’t have heard them for about the first ten seconds. and I thought, “Christ! If we’re just off and it’s that different, what’s the rest of it going to be like?”
Then we got to the first stage [engine] cutoff. Now I was the official rookie on the flight, although I think on the Saturn 5 everybody was a rookie. And when the first stage cut off we were under about four and a half G’s, as I recollect. But then some small retrorockets fired on the first stage to start pulling it off, so you actually went from four and a half to slightly negative. So the fluid in your ears did a complete slosh, and the net effect was that I felt like I was on one of these big old war catapults that the Romans used to have, you know, to heave boulders over the fort walls. I thought I was going right through that instrument panel!
So I threw my hands up, and about the time I got them up in front of my face, the second stage cut in. It came in with a real bang. There was a fireball all around us. I thought, “What’s happened here!?” (Laughs) My hand snapped back, and the wrist ring put a scratch in the face plate of my helmet. Well, this little scratch, I kept looking at it and thinking, “As soon as the other guys see that, they’ll know I’m a rookie.” But when I looked over at them, they both had scratches, too. (Laughs)
Final Frontier: Do you remember the first time you saw the Earth below you?
Bill Anders: Some time during the launch, but I hardly saw the Earth at all. My job was to look at the instrument panel. Borman said, “Anders, if I catch you looking out the window, I’m going to fire you!” And he wasn’t kidding. It wasn’t until I was over India or somewhere that I thought, “I’m just going to peek out the side window.” That was the first time I ever looked down in Earth orbit.
We were in Earth orbit for about one and a half revolutions or something like that, and I think I looked out three times. And I really hadn’t the foggiest idea where I was, I was just so busy looking at all the gauges and checking things Because this was the first time this beast was going to leave Earth orbit, and we wanted to make sure it worked.
Final Frontier: I think astronauts sometimes take a bad rap for not being more poetic at times like that. But you weren’t passengers—you were making sure that the switches were set the right way so your engine fired properly.
Bill Anders: Well, as interested as I’ve been in exploration and adventure and that kind of thing, it was clear to me personally, and certainly probably even more so to Frank Borman, who was the head of the mission, that if we busted our ass then all the poetic rhapsodizing in the world wouldn’t offset that. So we basically disciplined ourselves not to get too carried away.
Now guys previous to us in the Mercury program came close to disaster. Scott Carpenter was “ooh-ing and ahh-ing” on the sunsets and overshot his mark and damn near killed himself. So we figured we’d better really keep our nose to the mission grindstone. Not that we wouldn’t take a picture of the Earth-rise or note that the Earth was beautiful and the Moon was kind of stark. But we felt that our main job was to get there and back so that others could do the lunar science and the adventure aspect of it.
Final Frontier: Do you remember anything else about Earth orbit?
Bill Anders: The one thing I guess I do remember was we were coming over Australia, and it must have been a hot, muggy summer day down there because there were a lot of thunderstorms—it was at dusk—and they were like giant light bulbs going off all over the place.
One of the things I missed on my flight was not having the opportunity, like they did in Skylab, to go round and round the Earth. Because, in retrospect, the Earth is really a lot prettier place than the Moon. The Moon is like a big battlefield, and after you’ve studied two or three meteor craters, they all look a lot alike. Maybe that’s heresy to the geologists, but to me it looked like dirty beach sand where kids had been playing volleyball. That’s what it looks like, and I said it over the radio [during the mission], I got lots of nasty letters from the poets ever since. “Couldn’t you come up with something more poetic?”
Final Frontier: When you look at the beach now, do you think of the Moon?
Bill Anders: Oh, yeah. I went down to La Jolla about two months ago, stood on the sea wall and looked down and told the kids, “That’s what it looks like.” No papers and cigarette butts up there, but that’s what it looks like.
Final Frontier: Were you able to watch the Earth recede as you headed toward the Moon?
Bill Anders: I was looking out at the Earth, and it was like looking at the hour hand of a clock. You just knew you were moving away from it; you couldn’t quite see it move, but you’d look away and look back and it would have changed. I was fascinated by it. After we got the spacecraft checked out, there really wasn’t a hell of a lot to do. We’d go through our lunar procedures, but you can only do that so long.
Final Frontier: Shortly after you left Earth orbit, there’s some reference in the transcript to Herb Alpert music coming over the radio into your command module. Do you remember that?
Bill Anders: I’m trying to think where that Herb Alpert thing came from. We had given [Mission Control] some records. I think I gave them a Tijuana Brass/Herb Alpert record.
Final Frontier: So you had Mission Control play music for you?
Bill Anders: Yes, I gave them some stuff. In fact, in lunar orbit, the most notable thing that stuck with me was that I had given them [a record of] the Norman Luboff Chorale singing Christmas music that I liked. We were in lunar orbit, and they started to play this, and the spacecraft was rotating. In order to have good communications you had to select one of four antennas, depending on which one was generally pointed at the Earth. As long as you rotated, if you waited too long, you got poor voice communication. As we listened to the music, apparently I didn’t turn the antenna or something, and it started warbling. And it sounded really kind of eerie and extraterrestrial. Every time I hear “O Holy Night,” I think about that experience. It was as if the chorus of angels were really singing it, but they’d decided to go somewhere else.
Final Frontier: In those times during the voyage when you’d gone through your checklist and the switches were all set, what were you doing?
Bill Anders: Well, on the way back [to Earth] it became a bit boring. I was amazed. I said, “Here we are, way out here and you’ve got a great chance to look at the Earth….” You can look at the Earth for only so long, and pretty soon, you know, it hasn’t changed much. So, it was a two-and-a-half-day fall. I would put my feet in the hand rests on the shock absorbers of the seats, and I would cantilever myself out and lay back like I had my feet up on the ladder of a swimming pool, and just sit there and wait for the time to go by.
One time I decided I needed a little exercise. So, I put my hands on some hand holds, and I started doing a frog’s version of a pushup. I’d push with my arms against my feet. Then I’d push with my feet against my arm. So, I started going like this. Well, pretty soon I got a rather discreet [call from Mission Control], “We’re detecting some pulses on the accelerometer.” I can’t imagine what they thought I was doing. (Laughs)
Final Frontier: On your way to the Moon, Borman got very sick. Were you worried that they were going to abort the mission?
Bill Anders: Once you’re on your way the abort is serious business You’ve got to somehow kill off all that energy of the Saturn, and so going around the Moon with a sick guy is a hell of a lot safer (even if he’s dead) than trying to stop and come back. But…well, we were worried… I was worried for Frank. He was obviously sick. He maintains it was sleeping pills. I’ll let St. Peter be the judge of that.
But it didn’t make the spacecraft too pleasant because he was going at both ends, and it’s a very confined place, and there was this stuff drifting all over the place. I was feeling okay, but, you know, if somebody threw up in your lap right now, you wouldn’t feel too good. So, I grabbed an oxygen mask for fire use only and stuck that on because the smell was terrible.
It was ironic that I’d talked Frank into ’fessing up [to the ground controllers about being sick]. For whatever reason, I thought the ground people ought to know about it. So he finally divulged this into the [onboard] tape recorder. Then we gave what I thought was a very clear clue that the guys (on the ground) ought to go read out the onboard tape, which they could do. All they had to do was hit a few buttons and down it would come. But we never heard from them. We kept waiting, thinking the world was going to erupt, and they were going to talk to Frank and recommend some antidote to whatever his problem was. After eight hours, we figured they really don’t give a damn. By this time, Frank’s feeling better. Christ, then eight hours later the world comes unglued. They finally got around to listening to the tape. It didn’t make me feel too good. “What the hell? Are you guys really minding the store down there?” (Laughs)
Final Frontier: What else did you do when you had nothing else to do? Did you bring a book with you?
Bill Anders: No; should have. I played zero-G – pour out a little water and watch it bubble around, or play with a pencil. But even that, after two and a half days, can get a little boring to sit there and flip your pencil. (Laughs)
It was difficult for me to sleep. I didn’t feel sick, but I didn’t feel great. Borman and Lovell were together on watch, and then they’d go to sleep, and then I was on watch. Basically it was Borman and Anders on and off watch, and Lovell went with Borman. And they talked a lot. Borman’s half deaf, so they would yell back and forth.
Final Frontier: About what?
Bill Anders: Just ball games anything, how’s this, how’s that. They’d chat. So, it was hard for me to sleep, because of the noise and because of zero-G. You lay in bed at night and felt yourself failing—that would happen a lot. Plus, the fact that I didn’t want anybody messing around with the systems. I remember every now and then, reaching up and grabbing Lovell’s wrist, and he would say, “I thought you were asleep!” He’s up there and had his hand near some switch. He seemed to like to throw switches. So, I didn’t sleep much.
Final Frontier: Did you have the window shades open all the time or did you put them down?
Bill Anders: Mostly open except when you’re trying to sleep. Now, also, the window [sealing] material oozed out, so our windows looked like somebody had smeared oil on them – very disappointing. It had an oily purplish look, like new, clean lubricating oil. In fact, when we were in lunar orbit for the first time – just before the engine firing, as we flew from darkness into sunlight – there were long shadows and some high promontories illuminated on the Moon. But I thought that it was oil on the window, running down in droplets, rivulets. I thought I was focused [on the window] and I was really on the lunar surface. What it was the mountains of the Moon. I just blinked my eyes accouple of times and said, “Son of bitch. That’s the Moon, that’s the back of the Moon!”
Final Frontier: You were actually a little disappointed in the way the lunar surface looked.
Bill Anders: It wasn’t as interesting as I’d expected it. Pretty soon it became clear to us that it wasn’t at all like [the film] 2001, rough and jagged. Intellectually I knew it shouldn’t be that way, and I was surprised that I was surprised that it was as bombarded and sand-blasted as it looked.
Final Frontier: Although you had looked at Lunar Orbiter pictures before your trip, hadn’t you?
Bill Anders: Yes, but they weren’t that good. The Lunar Orbiter was further out. For some reason. I didn’t expect the Moon to be as bombarded as it was. I mean, it looked like Verdun. It was just a mass of pockmarks.
Final Frontier: Most of what you saw in sunlight was the far side?
Bill Anders: Yes. When we went the Moon was very new, and therefore we were able to see the back of it [in sunlight], more than anybody’s seen it since. We’ve seen pieces of the Moon that nobody else has ever seen, at least in daylight.
But there’s not a bit of it that hasn’t been hit by meteors. Even the flat parts are battered. I mean it looks flat from here. You get up close, and we had a little monocular. You look through that and it doesn’t look any different.
And there were no dimensions. I mean, literally, even the landing guys had a heck of a time telling how high and far away they were because there were no rivers, no barns, no fences or trees like a pilot is used to. All you had was your radar altimeter. The radar altimeter said you were at sixty miles or you were at six hundred feet. You look down, there’s a bunch of holes. If somebody had said, “The crater’s twenty feet across,” you could believe them. If they said it was twenty miles across, you’d believe that too. You just couldn’t tell. It made depth perception very difficult.
Final Frontier: In lunar orbit your main job was taking photographs of the surface, with specific features in mind?
Bill Anders: Yes, the geologists, they wanted this, and they wanted that. What we really should have done is just turn all of the cameras on and let them go, as opposed to trying to match up this map with that particular feature. We brought back a lot of unexposed film, which was too bad.
Final Frontier: You didn’t shoot all the film that you had?
Bill Anders: No. we had probably more than half of it unexposed. There was a suggested checklist, and of course they said, “If you see things of interest….” But there was a film-rationing mentality that was, in retrospect, inappropriate. Then we got into a phase where Frank determined, probably with some justification, that everybody was getting tired. So he declared a moratorium [on taking more photos]. It made me a little unhappy, but no big deal, and the cameras were basically on a slow click every twenty seconds, or something like that.
Final Frontier: I read that-section in the flight transcripts. For about twenty minutes he was yelling at you, “God-dammit. Anders, go to bed!”
Bill Anders: Right. So, I just laid there and watched out [the window] from my seat. I didn’t have as good a view. I wasn’t going to go to sleep.
Frontier: You never really slept?
Bill Anders: Never, no. Didn’t sleep, didn’t really try.
Final Frontier: Until when? When you were coming home?
Bill Anders: Yes. I probably didn’t sleep more than eight hours the whole flight, and then it wasn’t very good sleep.
Final Frontier: Why was Borman so upset about it?
Bill Anders: In fairness to Frank, he was responsible for the mission. All our tails were on the line, but the Air Force has found in studying air crews that the guy who signed out for the airplane has a lot more stress on him. He’s the one who has to answer if somebody screws up. In retrospect, it’s not fair to second- guess him. I was unhappy at the time, but later I figured, “No great loss, what’s a few pictures? The next guys will take them.”
Final Frontier: The question has come up about which one of you took the first picture of the Earthrise over the lunar surface. Have you been through all that controversy in the past 20 years?
Bill Anders: Right, and it’s been conclusively proved. After the flight, [on goodwill tours] we often had a little “Frank, Jim, and Bill Show.” Frank would tell this story – actually it’s kind of funny except it kind of teed me off at the time – something about how he had to force the 70 millimeter camera away from me taking flight plan pictures so that he could take a picture of Earthrise that wasn’t in the flight plan. Then, after he told the story many times, he started believing it.
There was a fellow by the name of Dick Underwood, who is sort of the guru of NASA photographers, and he’s the one who really did the detailed research comparing the voice-tape versus what [camera] lenses were on. And there’s no doubt about it. There was never any doubt in my mind that I took it.
Final Frontier: There’s a line in the transcript where Borman says, “Hey, look at that. Get a picture of that,” and you said something….
Bill Anders: I was trying to [photograph] something else and I told him to hold off a second and oh no, he had to have it right away, and there was a little bit of hassle back and forth….
Final Frontier: So Borman was the first one to see the Earthrise, but you all three then crowded around the window….
Bill Anders: We’re all looking out the window and I think we all… my guess is we all saw it about the same time.
Final Frontier: Same thing with the first close-up view of the Moon?
Bill Anders: Yes. My impression is that either Lovell or I were…Frank was looking inside, and I think Lovell and I were looking outside. But I can remember before anybody said anything, seeing these streaks going down the window and thinking, and maybe even saying, something like “What’s that?” and then realizing that it was the Moon.
One of the stories that I tell, which probably irritates the other guys—and I don’t even know whether this is true but I’ve told it so many times that it’s gotten to be one of those things I almost believe—is that I was actually the first one to go around the Moon. My story is that I was on watch, so I turned the spacecraft a little bit sideways so that I was going first by a hair’s width. (Laughs) I don’t know whether that’s true at all, but I think it’s a hell of a story, and any time I hear Frank Borman saying he took the Earthrise picture, l say, “Well, fine, but I was the first one around the Moon.”(Laughs)
Final Frontier: What else do you remember about being in lunar orbit?
Bill Anders: One aspect of the flight that I’m surprised hasn’t been picked up on is the crew’s naming of the craters. [Before the flight] I decided that I would name the craters. What the hell, we were going there. I didn’t ask anybody. I didn’t even ask Borman. So I got a Lunar Orbiter map, crude as they were. And I can remember sitting there at the Cape one night coming up with a list of names that I thought would be politically acceptable, including the President and all administrators of NASA. I picked out a few nice ones for the [astronauts] who had died, and, of course, one for Borman, Anders and Lovell—and even made sure they weren’t the biggest.
In training, we actually used those maps, and some of the training guys probably remember that we had a Crater Houston. It’s even in the voice tape. You’ll find us saying, “We’re over Houston.” The press never really picked up on that. Then, when the International Astronomical Union met and renamed the craters that we took pictures of, it always kind of made me mad. These guys weren’t there. Who the hell did they think they were?
And to add insult to injury, they thought, I guess, that they were going to honor us by naming craters for six Americans who weren’t dead. The naming of extraterrestrial features is generally not for anybody that’s alive. But the astronomical union, with a certain, I think, properness, decided they would pick six Americans: the three of us and the three from the lunar landing crew. And, of course, they had to pick six Russians in order to get the Russians to agree.
But what really made me mad was that there was a little black sliver on the back side that we could not see into because there was no sunshine and no Earth-shine. Where do you think those guys picked for the Anders, Borman and Lovell craters? In that sliver.
A friend of mine was the president of the astronomical union, so I’ve written him about five or six letters, just sort of jabbing him, saying, “First of all, you guys didn’t have the right to rename them.” I got a letter back saying, in effect, “Gee we’ve already picked these names.” I wrote, “Well, you should have at least picked craters we could see. Either you were vindictive or you’re dumb!” He quit writing to me after that. (Laughs)
Final Frontier: Let’s talk about probably the most famous moment of the mission, your reading of Genesis in lunar orbit on Christmas Eve. Did you spend a lot of time thinking about that beforehand?
Bill Anders: I don’t know how Frank looked at it as a religious message, but I looked at it more as, here we were going to be doing Mankind’s first step out, and Mankind needed some sort of whack in the solar plexus besides just the photography and Walter Cronkite’s description. This thing struck me as being very basic. Primitive isn’t the right word – fundamental. Whether you believe God created the heavens and the Earth in five days or seven days, or whatever, is kind of immaterial. To me it’s a fundamental theme that people can get shaken and awakened by. I think it did that to a degree, even for non-religious people.
Final Frontier: It was powerful. Did you feel that at the time?
Bill Anders: Yes, I did, and the photography, with the long lunar shadows, it all worked. It was well timed. Looking straight down at a crater would hardly have gotten anybody excited, but when you saw that Moon with the panoramas, particularly as you’re going near the terminator, I think it amplified that this was kind of eerie, fundamental, really something different for mankind.
Final Frontier: Okay. Let’s talk about the return to Earth. At some point you had to turn the capsule with your backs to the Earth for reentry. When was that?
Bill Anders: Much sooner than the flight plan, it seemed to me. Borman really wanted to get everything right. And, unlike Scott Carpenter, he wasn’t going to wait until the last minute. I think we went into a re-entry attitude a third of the way back. I don’t remember when it was, but it was a long time.
That’s one thing I missed. I never really got to see the Earth getting big.
We went rear-end-first several hours out. By that time, you’re really moving, because you just start going faster and faster and faster. So, the last hour, you cover an awful lot of distance. You’re moving at 25,000 miles an hour. Frank’s view was, “To hell with looking at the Earth. It won’t do us any good to look at the Earth if we don’t get set up for re-entry.” And he was right.
Final Frontier: What do you remember about the re-entry itself?
Bill Anders: That it was impressive. Coming back in like you were a fly inside a blow torch flame. Then the night re entry and landing. We hit [the water] very hard. I thought the space craft had split open because water came flying from everywhere. I guess it was [condensed water] coming off pipes [inside the cabin].
Final Frontier: Could you see anything in the water?
Bill Anders: No, it was totally black; we couldn’t see the parachutes or any thing. AH you could feel was a big “whump.” Borman was momentarily stunned, and didn’t flip a switch in time to shear the parachutes off, so we flipped upside down. And all the trash we’d collected then, it was like turning a New York City bus upside down; all this trash was right in our face. We’re hanging there, and I thought, “Here we are, lunar conquerors, out in the middle of the Pacific in the dark, upside down with a face full of trash. Where’s the jus tice in this?”
But we were bobbing around upside down and it was pretty rough. We finally re-righted the thing with inflatable bags on the apex of the spacecraft, and then we established radio contact. That’s when somebody in a helicopter said, “Is the Moon made of blue cheese?” And I said, “No, it’s made of American cheese.” That didn’t get much play either. I thought it would, but it didn’t.
Final Frontier: You trained for years, and went through lots of simulations before you went to the Moon. As momentous as the flight itself was, were there times when you thought to yourself, “I’m still in the simulator”?
Bill Anders: Well, the actual flight is often considerably more dull. I found myself a couple of times thinking, before I’d catch myself, “Gee, I wish something would go wrong so l could show everybody how I can fix it.”
Basically, we weren’t very surprised during the flight except for the launch, and the difference between the Earth and the Moon. It wasn’t like Verrazano. He never even knew what was around the next reef, and he couldn’t sit back there in Spain or Italy or wherever he came from, and go through a simulation of exploring North America. We’d simulated this thing over and over again, and trained and trained. We weren’t just little automatic guys, but that’s the nature of flight test. You don’t want to be surprised. If you’re surprised, then somebody’s probably screwed up in the past. But the public, you take them right out of being school teachers or grocers and stick them in there, they’d be surprised for every second.
Final Frontier: Today, when you’re absorbed in company business, or some other unrelated thing, and somebody says, “Apollo 8″ to you, is there a first image that comes to your head?
Bill Anders: I don’t think about Apollo 8 all the time. I can go for a whole month without thinking of it, and every now and then, when I see the Moon as a sliver, I’ll think, “Son-of-a-gun, it’s hard to imagine that I was out there. Is it really true?”
So, Apollo 8 is not the first thing on my mind. It was a very thrilling, important experience, but now I have a family, a job and a life to lead past 1968. It’s not the focus of my existence any more. But I think the image that comes to my mind most often is the view of the full Earth. It was that Earth that really stuck in my mind when I think of Apollo 8. It was a surprise; we didn’t think about that.