Apollo 11: Chasing Moon Shadows

Total solar eclipses happen often but usually in places far away and seemingly problematic to get to.  But of all those seen over millennia, only one eclipse had more impact on modern science; that which occurred one hundred and one years ago, on May 29, 1919, when it raced across South America and over the Atlantic to Africa.  This total solar eclipse would be the affirmation of Albert Einstein’s theory that gravity could bend light. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/31/science/eclipse-einstein-general-relativity.html?smid=spacecal

The “Einstein” or General Relativity Eclipse was similar in characteristics to last year’s July 2nd, Great South America Total Solar Eclipse.

Photo by Tom Haeberle

I reveled in the notion that when I was standing in its shadow, I was making contact with the Moon and with those who walked on it.  My sojourn to Chile in 2019 was my way of paying homage to and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the manned Moon landing.

Photo by NASA

Oddly enough, at mid-epoch between these two solar eclipse events and separated one hundred years was the prestigious moment of men landing on the Moon.  The Apollo 11 crew — Michael Collins, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong — encountered a remarkable solar eclipse of their own making aboard their spacecraft.  On July 19th, on the fourth day of the voyage, they were positioned around the Darkside of the Moon with the Sun behind it. When both were aligned, you got a scene analogous to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There was much excitement and awe in their voices as they described the event unfolding.  CNN Director and Editor Todd Miller in compiling footage for an Apollo 11 documentary, noted that Armstrong in an interview explained that their most idyllic moment from the voyage was not [surprisingly] the landing on the Moon.  He said, “It was seeing the Moon about 100,000 miles out and seeing a solar corona happen.  And you heard that when you heard the onboard audio from the astronauts, you heard them describe [it in detail].”  [https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/19/entertainment/apollo-11-cnn-film-documentary/index.html]

The BBC dramatization, 8 Days: To the Moon and Back, best illustrates for the viewers its dramatic reconstruction, using actual Eleven mission recordings.  Actors portrayed the astronauts, re-enacting flight scenes with voice dub-overs from those sound recordings from inside the cockpit. [https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07fzlvn]

The Eleven crew captured their special encounter on film, which can be found on NASA’s online archive, titled: AS11-42-6179.   The description reads: ‘This photograph of the solar corona was taken from the Apollo 11 spacecraft during its translunar coast and prior to lunar orbit.”

Photo by NASA

Apollo 11 was not the only manned Spacecraft to be captivated by celestial silhouettes; Gemini XII in its orbit caught the Lunar shadow traversing the Earth in November 1966.

Photo by NASA

Buzz Aldrin (and copilot Jim Lovell) witnessed a natural solar eclipse of the Moon blocking the Sun on Gemini XII’s twelfth orbit.  Eleven, being his second and last spaceflight, gave Aldrin the distinction of the only astronaut to see two solar eclipses from outer space. https://skyandtelescope.org/2017-total-solar-eclipse/buzz-aldrin-two-solar-eclipses-space/

Photo by NASA

The crew of Apollo XII witnessed a similar scene to what had been seen by Eleven, except it was Earth eclipsing the Sun.  During the Soyuz and Apollo test mission in 1975, the two ships separated, and used the Apollo Command-Service Module to create an artificial solar eclipse, and to allow the Russian crew of the Soyuz to take photographs of the solar corona.  What possibilities were demonstrated here for the future of creating artificial eclipses in outer space!

In the nineteenth year of the Third Millennium, on that 2nd day of July, darkness fell over the land, in a clear blue sky, in parts of Chile and Argentina, caused by the Moon obscuring the Sun and revealing its true Darkside.  That solar eclipse connected me with my past, to that special event in 1969.   Solar eclipses have a way of connecting the present with the past, as well as to the future.  They, like many other things, are life’s milestones, just as July 20th was a moment to be forever remembered and cherished.