It wasn't the moonscape that fascinated William Anders 20 years ago this week, it was the planet he had left behind.

Ex-astronaut Anders, now 55, reflected recently about the historic Apollo 8 lunar mission - the first manned flight from Earth to the moon and back.He and fellow astronauts Frank Borman and James A. Lovell Jr. blasted off Dec. 21, 1968, orbited the moon for 21 hours on Christmas Eve and early Christmas morning, then broke free from the moon's gravitational pull and started home, landing in the Pacific Ocean Dec. 27.

While in lunar orbit, the three fed a stream of impressions about the moon to a fascinated radio and television audience. No man had ever seen the "back side of the moon" before.

Anders, now an executive in Rhode Island with Textron, recalled that his "vivid recollection was not of the moon and its very stark, pulverized surface. It was Earth itself. It was so remarkably beautiful, fragile, friendly from that distance."

Anders recalled that the reaction was somewhat surprising, coming from "hard-bitten test pilots."

The ex-astronaut said that he and his fellow astronauts were not scared before and during the mission.

"We were test pilots and had been in more dangerous situations in our career," explained Anders.

The three men who circled the moon received a standing ovation from Congress. President Johnson called them "history's boldest explorers."

The head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said at the time that the achievement was the "triumph of the squares - the guys with computers and slide rules."

Anders, who later went on to become U.S. ambassador to Norway and chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, expressed "disappointment" with the progress of the nation's space program over the past several years.

"The Soviets have plodded along in a commendable way," he said, "while we have canceled things and fiddled around."