AN ENCOUNTER WITH APOLLO VIII
On Christmas day 1968, I hurried the family through a very early gift exchange and headed for base operations at Patrick AFB FL to do my flight planning for a flight to the Pacific for the purpose of photographing the return of Apollo 8 from the moon. The plane was a C-135 with a very large camera mounted on the side. The whole system being called “ALOTS”, Airborne Lightweight Optical Tracking System. We had used it very successfully for photo coverage of space flight launches but no one had ever thought seriously of using it to photograph a re-entry-until this flight was conceived.
Now, flying a plane to the Pacific at that point in my flying career was not an overly exciting event, but the idea of an intercept between two vehicles with such a tremendous speed differential, added a sense of urgency and a touch of drama from my point of reference, that I will always remember. I had a feeling of “Come on fellas'! Let’s get going! They’re coming”. And when I would actually think of how fast they were coming and how slow I was moving, it only heightened the anxiety.
We were required to take a minimum crew rest after arriving at Hickam AFB, but the feeling of “let’s get going!” persisted because the Apollo 8 crew was certainly not doing any crew resting.Well a remarkable thing happened about midnight of that night, i.e. the crew transportation arrived, no traffic jams were encountered, the weather was beautiful, all four engines started with no problems. and we were airborne on time for the final leg of our rendezvous with Apollo 8.
We flew to a position about 1200 miles west and a little south of Hawaii, climbing eventually to 43,000 feet. It was a beautifully clear night in the Pacific. The navigator gave me a heading change from southwest to northwest, precisely as he had planned. I held the new heading for approximately two minutes, much like a holding pattern, when the navigator said “ look to your left, they should be there right nooowww”. It was a moment I will always remember. The scene should not have surprised me, but it did. THEY WERE THERE-a faint light coming from the west at horizon level, getting noticeably brighter with each passing second. It seemed unreal. Could this be happening? In a fashion of a Bob Newhart comedy routine it could have been made to sound humorous, "you say you are are where? You say you are in the center of the Pacific ocean in the middle of the night, at 43,000 feet and you are going to photograph this space ship coming back from the moon, you see it now?" and so forth.
The initial shock was over and I got back to business hurriedly because Apollo 8 was really moving. It was still bothering me, however, that it came from just over the horizon. Somehow coming from the moon I expected it to arrive from somewhere 'up there'. The space craft was really getting bright. The whole Pacific began to light up as the Command module separated from the Service module. They arched apart much in the same manner as the old Roman candle fireworks tubes would send their discharged balls of fire arching through the night.
Just at that moment I had to quit being a spectator and get back to flying my airplane and commence the required right turn so as to keep the camera on the passing spacecraft. This necessary action caused me to miss the real spectacular of the service module breaking up, with the attendant generation of light, that momentarily turned night into day. However, all of the other crew members in the cockpit got to enjoy the fireworks. The camera crew in the back of the plane became so fascinated with the big flash of the Service module breaking up that they centered the camera in on it momentarily rather than the Command module which was the primary target.
I had started making my turn using the autopilot, but because I had become so overly fascinated watching the spectacular return or perhaps I just simply underestimated the crossing speed (it was a thing that you did not get to practice) I quickly determined that the maximum 38 degrees of bank the auto pilot was providing was not going to give a sufficient rate of turn. I punched off the autopilot and started increasing the bank. Now that old girl at 43,000 feet did not have a lot left over and objected to the steep turn I was forcing her into. She let me know with a shudder or so. The crew was so fascinated with the whole show I could probably have slow rolled it and they would not have noticed. The camera lost track momentarily during the deep turn portion, but quickly recovered to pick up the space craft again as it continued eastward toward splash down.
I was able to get off of the gauges again and visually followed it’s diminishing light into an eastern horizon that was just beginning to show the very faintest indication of the coming day and the successful return of Apollo 8. It was a very memorable experience. I considered myself very fortunate to have been on the scene of such an eminently successful achievement-man returning from the moon for the first time. The fact that I had known Col. Borman, the Apollo Commander, having flown together as test pilots at Edwards AFB earlier in our careers, made the event even more meaningful.
Robert L. Mosley