Apollo 8: the view from the ground

While other pages on this part of my site are devoted to stars taken from Apollo, this page looks at Apollo against the stars.

It was inspired by the appearance on eBay of a copy of the Daily Mirror from December 23rd 1968, which reported on a TV broadcast made the previous day. The specific item of interest was a picture shown on the inside pages.

To summarise the article, amateur astronomer Henry Hatfield took the image from his garden in Sevenoaks in Kent as Apollo 8’s spent SIV-B discharged its remaining fuel into space. This event occurred at 18:00 on December 21st, as recorded in the Apollo 8 timeline, after the SIV-B had separated from the moon-bound CSM.

As luck would have it, another amateur (MJ Hendrie) based in Colchester some 50 miles north-East also captured the event, as detailed on Bill Keel’s site. Note the chimney in shot (below) left, suggesting that Apollo 8 appeared quite low in the night sky.

So it seemed logical to try and match up what is visible with what should be visible.

The first thing to do is to try and match the stars on view with the time and location. Thankfully Bill Keel’s site helps us out here by identifying one of the stars - Theta Aquilae to the right of the chimney

Below are the two photographs superimposed on Stellarium’s view from that time, date, and location.

It’s worth noting that the longer exposure of Hatfield’s image has produced star trails as the Earth rotates underneath them. The Apollo spacecraft’s movement is away from the camera, and there is therefore no motion blurring.

Hatfield’s image has been perspective adjusted to allow for the way it has been photographed.

Another feature of interest is the relative position of Apollo 8 in the sky. The image below left shows the Stellarium view with the position of Apollo 8 in each photograph marked. Below right, for reasons which will become clear shortly, is an image showing the compass direction for Apollo 8, marked by the blue dot.

The difference occurs because the stars are so far away it makes relatively little difference whether they are viewed from Colchester or Sevenoaks, but it does make a difference to where Apollo 8 appears to be against the stellar backdrop.

So, we’ve established that at the same time as Apollo 8 was venting fuel people on the ground took photographs of it, now what? Well, while people on the ground were taking photographs of Apollo, Apollo was taking photographs of the ground. Magazine A from the mission shows an image of the entire Earth just after a sequence of images showing the now discarded SIV-B.

Here is that image, AS08-16-2593, rotated to a correct north-south alignment as illustrated by Google Earth.

Thanks to weather satellite data, we can confirm the timing of this image as around 45 to 60 minutes prior to the photographs taken on the ground. The south-east of England is in the top right of the image, now in the early evening of a mid-Winter night. 16mm footage of the same view also exists.

What’s the red line? Well, it runs from the south-East of England to the centre of the Earth as viewed by Apollo - in other words the point directly beneath the spacecraft. You could quibble and argue that it should go to the centre of the image,but this would just extend the line along roughly the same bearing. Speaking of bearing, remember that Stellarium image above showing the compass. It showed Apollo to have a bearing of around 240 degrees.

Here’s that same line, rotated so that we can superimpose a nice compass rose on its point of origin.

Have a look at the bearing. It’s all very back of the envelope and so on, but it’s not far off at all. Its position above southern America would also account for the relatively low position in the night sky in England.

Why does this matter?

Well, there are many conspiracy nuts who don’t believe that anyone witnessed Apollo activity. This confirms not only that Apollo 8 was witnessed leaving Earth orbit at exactly the time claimed, but that it was witnessed by amateurs rather than people who can be implicated as being part of some wider conspiracy. Their observations on the ground are entirely consistent with what should have been seen, and are borne out by the pictures taken by Apollo 8 astronauts themselves.

There are even those complete fruitbats who claim that even Earth orbit is impossible, and that nothing has ever been up there. This provides another small mallet with which to beat them about the head.