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Eric's Heroes: The astronaut who showed us our planet as we had never seen it

Earthrise. At the end of 1968, Bill Anders took this iconic photo.

BURLINGTON, Wash. -- I don't get nervous for interviews.

Well, OK, I was nervous about talking to President Obama. And one time when I met my musical hero Brian Wilson I completely out of whack.

For the most part though, I don't get nervous.

But the other day when I went up to Burlington to interview Maj. Gen.l William Anders, I'll admit it: I was nervous.

He pulled up to the Heritage Flight Museum in a beautiful Audi, and climbed out. I walked up and said, "I'm Eric."

He smiled and said, "I'm Bill."

After that it was smooth sailing. I sat down with a man who has done enough things and gone enough places for five or six lifetimes, and we talked about life and space and photography and flying. We also talked about mankind's place in our vast universe.

I'll never forget it.

There he was just a few minutes later, in a flight jumpsuit, climbing nimbly onto the wing of a glistening, vintage Beechcraft T-34 Mentor.

It was like watching history itself circling back to revisit itself.

This was the very first plane Bill flew solo in, many, many years ago.

He tosses his cap to somebody and climbs in.

He puts on a helmet with a red and yellow lightning bolt on it, and he's ready to fly.

The engine turns over a couple times, and the propeller stops and starts. And then it fires, and the air is flooded with the unmistakable, throaty sound of a World War II aircraft. Bill pulls out some reading glasses and puts them down on the end of his nose so he can read the instrument panel, but also see above them.

Gravity tethers us to our world. But for some people, there is a stronger force pulling them always away from it.

Bill Anders is like that. He is 84 years old.

He takes off and watching it, your heart flutters a little and you can't help but smile. This is no jet. There are no computers. This looks like a real damned airplane, and it sounds like a real damned airplane, and it's being flown by a real damned pilot.

And all of it is heightened by the fact that this man has one of the most storied aeronautical careers in the history of man's flirtation with flying.

As he makes another pass in the Beechcraft, his son, Lt. Col.l Greg Anders, watches him go by and says, "The skills haven't diminished. He's not flying the Mustang anymore, he decided it was time to put those toys away. But he still flies the Beaver, and he loves that new T-34, just a great plane to fly. And he's been flying the Carbon Cub quite a bit."

We watch the Major General bank left so he can come around again.

"The pace has not changed," says Greg.

When we finally get Bill to sit down, as we're putting on microphones I remark, "You're probably done a million of these..."

He doesn't hesitate.

"At least," he says. And he's probably right.

"I'm retired now," he reports, "so I fly as much as I can. And we have a boat over in Deer Harbor that we go cruising in as much as we can. So it's a nice life now."

Were it any other man, I might have been there talking to him about his years as the CEO of General Dynamics. Or when he was a vice-president of General Electric. Or when he was the first chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Or how he was appointed ambassador to Norway.

But he knows I'm not there to talk about those things.

He knows I'm there to ask him about what happened 49 years ago, when he did nothing less than forever change the way human beings look at themselves and their place in the greater scheme of things.

Bill Anders was on Apollo 8. Along with Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, he was one of the first three members of humankind to break free from earth's grasp and leave its orbit.

Let's put it another way: if Bill Anders walked into a room with Barack Obama, George Clooney, Michael Jordan and Bill Gates, Bill would be the MAN in the room. No questions asked.

He is, of course, asked to remember his trip to the moon all the time. He is patient with those requests, if not gleeful for the opportunity to talk about it for the umpteenth time.

"Apollo 8 is very real in my mind when I look up at the moon and it's very new, which is the way it was when we went."

I'm immediately imagining this man looking up at night and remembering. "And I'm thinking, 'Boy that's a long way up there,' and, uh, I'm glad I made the trip."

They shot the three of them up on a Saturn V rocket. The modern day Magellans left our atmosphere and made a beeline for the moon. They circled it several times, and the whole world watched on TV. And then they came home and splashed down into the ocean. It was, and is, one of the most astonishing journeys of exploration ever undertaken.

But Bill doesn't at all buy into the romantic notion that it was America boldly pushing the envelope of human exploration, for the sake of adventure and knowledge.

"Basically it was a military program," he says, "to show ourselves and the rest of the world that the U.S. wasn't second best, that we were better than the Soviet union, who had made us look pretty bad."

The Heritage Flight Museum in Burlington is really a thing to behold. Bill runs it with his sons, and on the day we were there, Greg Anders made it clear why this place is different from, say, the Museum of Flight.

"It's one thing to see a P-51 Mustang." he said. "It's another to see it fly."

The planes here all work.

"It's expensive to run this thing," says Bill, which is probably an understatement. "But the people enjoy seeing the fly-bys..."

Standing next to the P-51, Bill offhandedly mentions the kind of story that only a few people in the world can tell.

We are talking about Russians, and MIG jets, and he says, "I was the first guy to flip 'em off, over the North Sea."

I said, "What?"

"Talk to Tom Cruise about that."

"Is that where they got that from?" Visions of "Top Gun" are dancing in my head.

"Yeah,' says the man, "that's where it came from."

On Apollo 8's fourth trip around the moon, with Bill and the others looking out from their tiny ship, something extraordinary happened.

If you go onto YouTube you can actually see old film of them and you can hear Bill say, "Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! the Earth coming up. Wow! Get a color film, Jim!"

It was the planet Earth, blue and infinitely beautiful and so tiny against the blackness and nothingness behind it, rising up above the scorched surface of the moon.

Thinking back, Bill explains, "One of my secondary duties on Apollo 8 was a photographer, to take pictures of potential landing sites and geological features of interest on the moon, and we had no light meters."

And then he adds something astounding, in retrospect: "Nobody thought about taking pictures of the Earth."

NASA had planned everything about the trip in incredible detail. But nobody had made even the slightest mention of taking a photograph of our planet.

Somehow it had fallen through the cracks of one of the greatest journeys ever taken by humans.

On the grainy film you hear Bill say, "Hand me a roll of color, quick!"

And then, "Oh man, I have it right here!"

"And so basically," he says, "when the Earth came up I basically pointed the camera, got color film, got a long lens so the Earth would be bigger, and started clicking away and changing the F-stop as I went."

He knew it was something special the moment it happened. That is proven on the film when he says, "Oh, that's a beautiful shot!"

But inside the capsule, there was no way any of them could have known the impact the picture would have on that bright blue marble that was dancing before them on Dec. 24, 1968.

It came to be known as the Earthrise photo. It was our first look at ourselves. Our first image of how delicate we are. And how small.

It is said to have launched the environmentalist movement.

And it has been called one of the two or three most important photographs ever taken.

Today Maj. Gen.l Anders jokes about the picture. "Photographically, you could certainly quibble with the granularities and whether the f-stop was right," he says with a slight smile.

Yeah, and the Mona Lisa has bags under her eyes.

After Bill landed the Beechcraft, he waited about 15 minutes and then went up again. Only this time his son, Greg, was flying right beside him in the greatest of all WWII aircraft, the iconic P-51 Mustang.

I got chills watching the two of them up there doing what comes naturally, challenging once again the laws that tether us to Mother Earth. Actual chills.

And as I watched them flying by side by side about 50-feet off the ground, I let my mind wander over the incredible life of William Anders, and I remembered being a little boy and watching on TV as a man up in the sky circling the moon told a story to the biggest audience in history.

First he said, "For all the people back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send to you."

He paused for a moment, and then slowly recited these words: "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. and it was good."

I asked him what it does to a man to go so far away and look back at his home?

He said, "I'll keep my religious views to myself, but I will say this: To think that this little tiny speck out in the leftfield of the universe, and in a rather unremarkable solar system, and galaxy, was the center of the universe struck me as being a little self-centered and silly. It sort of changed my perspective on a lot of things."

Bill is pessimistic about mankind's future. He explains it this way: "Isn't it a shame that here we are on this fragile planet shooting bullets and throwing hand grenades at each other? Why can't we get together and quit being like the ants on a log floating down a river, arguing about who's in charge of the log."

Looking back on my conversation with Mr. Anders, I'm not nervous about the interview anymore. It went well. He was fascinating. And honest.

But I suppose I'm more nervous about other things than I was before.

More nervous about that beautiful blue planet he looked at so long ago, and those ants on the log.

Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to heroes@komonews.com.

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