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Photographing Apollo 8's Orbit Toward the Moon

Posted on Fri, December 21, 2018
  • by: David Le Conte, Royal Astronomical Society Fellow
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The moment of humankind's first voyage to the Moon and back was captured in a series of photos taken at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observing Station in Maui, Hawaii. They show the trans-lunar injection rocket burn which sent Apollo 8 hurtling out of Earth orbit toward the Moon on December 21, 1968–perhaps the only such images that exist. Photographer David Le Conte said, "To this day the stunning vision of man's first journey to the Moon remains the most unforgettable sight of my life."


Fifty years ago, in the middle of the winter solstice night of December 21, 1968, I drove up to the summit of the ten thousand foot dormant volcano Haleakala on the island of Maui in the Hawaiian archipelago. My mission was to photograph a momentous event – humanity's first voyage into the space beyond the environs of the Earth, out toward the Moon.

As I was driving up the mountain, the Apollo 8 spacecraft was being launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the first time the giant Saturn V rocket was used. The spacecraft was to make two orbits of the Earth before the third-stage rocket was fired to send it off toward the Moon. Predictions showed that this trans-lunar injection, as the rocket firing was known, would take place over the Pacific Ocean, just above our southern horizon.

David Le Conte with a Baker-Nunn camera in Florida, circa 1966. Credit: David Le Conte

At that time I was the 28-year-old manager of the Smithsonian Institution’s Astrophysical Observing Station on the mountain. It was equipped with a 3.5-ton tri-axially mounted Baker-Nunn satellite-tracking camera, which had an f/1 aperture of 20 inches and a 30-inch primary mirror. For this important mission, I had selected two experienced colleagues: the late Joe Coldwell and Bill Perry. We set up a communications link with our headquarters, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which in turn had a direct link with NASA Mission Control in Houston, Texas. We therefore had real-time updates of the spacecraft’s progress, and were able to point the massive camera exactly in the right direction as it came over the horizon and drive the camera to follow its path.

Apollo 8 was visible for just a couple of minutes, during which we experienced the most spectacular sight as the third-stage rocket fired, pushing its speed and altitude to new records for crewed spaceflight – over 24,000 mph and 200 miles high. In that short time, we took dozens of photographs, each a foot long, recording every moment of this historic event, our success being reported back to Houston while the rocket burn was still in progress.

  • Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection, setting it on a trajectory to the Moon.

    Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection, setting it on a trajectory to the Moon. Credit: Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory, David Le Conte, Joe Coldwell, Bill Perry.

  • Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection, setting it on a trajectory to the Moon.

    Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection, setting it on a trajectory to the Moon. Credit: Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory, David Le Conte, Joe Coldwell, Bill Perry.

  • Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection, setting it on a trajectory to the Moon.

    Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection, setting it on a trajectory to the Moon. Credit: Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory, David Le Conte, Joe Coldwell, Bill Perry.

  • Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection, setting it on a trajectory to the Moon.

    Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection, setting it on a trajectory to the Moon. Credit: Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory, David Le Conte, Joe Coldwell, Bill Perry.

  • Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection, setting it on a trajectory to the Moon.

    Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection, setting it on a trajectory to the Moon. Credit: Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory, David Le Conte, Joe Coldwell, Bill Perry.

  • Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection, setting it on a trajectory to the Moon.

    Apollo 8’s trans-lunar injection, setting it on a trajectory to the Moon. Credit: Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory, David Le Conte, Joe Coldwell, Bill Perry.

It turned out that our photographs were unique. A neighbouring US Air Force space-tracking facility had decided that the event would not be visible from Hawaii, and therefore did not try for it. And NASA photographers aboard the recovery aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in the South Pacific also failed to get any pictures.

Within a couple of hours, as soon as we had processed and evaluated the film, I was on my way to Honolulu to provide the pictures to the media and send them off to our headquarters.

In the meantime, Apollo 8, with astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, was well on its way to the Moon. The journey took three days. They arrived there on Christmas Eve, and entered lunar orbit, the objective being to test the spacecraft and all command and communications systems in preparation for the first Moon landing seven months later. While in orbit, they famously read the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis to the largest television audience ever. The three astronauts were the first people to see the far side of the Moon and captured the wonderful Earthrise picture of our planet appearing over the lunar horizon.

On Christmas Day, after ten orbits of the Moon, they began their return to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on December 27. Their extraordinary achievement excited the world, and our historic photographs were published in scores of newspapers and magazines, including Time and Life. To this day, the stunning vision of our first journey to the Moon remains the most unforgettable sight of my life.

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