Apollo 13 Re-entry

Air New Zealand DC-8 sees the Re-entry

Auckland Star

As Apollo 13 re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, passengers on an Air New Zealand DC8 flying from Nadi in Fiji to Auckland witnessed the Command and Service modules streaking through the morning twilight. The Auckland Star reported the sighting on their front page.

Click the image for a larger version – or click here for a scan of just the text.

Thanks to Ted Barnes (ex Orroral Valley) and Bill Howard (Puke Ariki and District Libraries, New Plymouth, New Zealand) for finding the microfiche copy of the page. (The Auckland Star ceased publication in the late 1970s.)

Auckland Star

This photo was featured on the Astronomy Picture of the Day for July 9, 1995.

Picture credit is ‘Unknown’, but it is clearly the photo that was first published in The Auckland Star on Saturday April 18, 1970 – taken by someone (perhaps a member of the flight crew) on the Air New Zealand flight.

Update (November 2016):

The photograph was taken by Ken Hickson, who worked for Air New Zealand at the time.

Ken writes (20 November 2016),

“I was on the aircraft as an Air New Zealand staffer. The Air New Zealand PR manager decided to send me to accompany an Auckland Star photographer in the hope that we would witness the re-entry on the return flight from Nadi.

The Auckland Star photographer gave me his second camera and I used it to see if I could capture anything from a passenger window – not the flight deck. Miraculously I managed to do just that as I’m not a photographer and it wasn’t my camera.

When the newspaper’s official photographer returned to his darkroom to develop the film from his and the camera I used, he discovered that my shot was the best. He didn’t have to tell me that, but he did. He also gave me a print of the shot used in the newspaper that day.”

Ken now runs a consultancy in Singapore, Sustain Ability Showcase Asia. He is still a working journalist/editor and is author of six books.

Auckland Star

In response to my request for a higher resolution image, Andrew Rennie kindly sent this scan of the photo from the newspaper.

Large (1.1MB), Larger (4.1MB).

Auckland Star

And here is the microfiche copy with Andrew Rennie’s scan of the photo inserted.

Apollo 13

Here is the same photo “with the compliments of Air New Zealand” – as NASA image S70-17646.

Source: NASA Human Space Flight.

photo by Peter Gabelish

Peter Gabelish, a passenger on the same Air New Zealand flight, was on his way from the US back to Sydney.

He, along with the other passengers, viewed the re-entry fireball and, a few minutes later, took this photo of the trail left by Apollo 13. The spacecraft travelled from right to left, into the Pacific dawn.

With thanks to Peter Gabelish for his kind permission to use the photo, and also thanks to Bill Keel for the tip.

Update (April 2017): Peter shares his account of the experience:

“I found myself on a southerly flight across the Pacific to Auckland with the vague feeling that our route would be close to Apollo 13’s re-entry trajectory. I was on my way home from a stint in the US and Apollo 13 was big news, particularly in the States, as the three crewmen on board the stricken spacecraft fought for their lives. We were no sooner seated for take-off than a rather excited pilot announced, ‘You may or may not be aware that we are expected to see Apollo 13’s re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. We are in communication with Houston and will be the first to see the returning spacecraft. Houston want us to remain in contact until vehicle recovery’.

Much excitement on board as everyone who had a camera set it up for the spectacle. Fortunately I had a camera that allowed me to set shutter speed, aperture etc., unlike the average modern camera that won't let you do much except point and shoot. Having figured out what I thought would work I proceeded to advise a fellow passenger on settings. It turned out that he was a professional photographer assigned by a newspaper for the event. I hope he appreciated my advice as my photos came out beautifully on my basic equipment.

With the cabin lights out we waited expectantly. Running about two minutes behind schedule a brilliant fire ball, like a massive Very light [a type of flare] appeared over the starboard horizon! Travelling horizontally, an incandescent, silver plume of brilliant light, leaving a blazing trail of constant width behind it, arced in from the west at an altitude that didn’t appear to be much higher than ours. The silver phosphorescent tail it left behind seemed to retain its brilliance as a curved band of luminescent material while the leading body continued at constant velocity across our path. I presumed the tail to be the vaporized aluminium and magnesium materials from which the capsules were mostly constructed. My reaction was that no one could live through the incredible fireworks and that all must be lost. Every few seconds a bright yellow-orange spark would branch off the main spearhead and arc away on a different trajectory.

The incredible display continued across our path and arced towards the eastern horizon on our port side. The inferno diminished while still within our sight. When it died out, a minute red dot continued on the east bound path, curving out of sight over the horizon. This was the command module with its glowing heat shield that had survived the impossible inferno and miraculously had living humans inside it. I would guess that the whole display lasted three to four minutes.

We were fortunate that the whole re-entry was seen in total darkness.

Several minutes afterwards day began to break and the trail of vaporized metal was visible hanging in the upper atmosphere for the next twenty minutes or so affording me the chance to photograph it as it hung there.

The next morning the Auckland Star carried a photograph of the re-entry proclaiming that the passengers on our flight had been the sole witnesses to ‘The Sight of a Lifetime’. It seemed that their photographer was lucky enough to get it right too! Perchance he used the settings I gave him?”

Apollo 13 re-entry

Steve Chase preserved this clipping from a newspaper in Perth, Western Australia.

“Apollo 13’s fiery re-entry into the earth's atmosphere provided a brilliant spectacle for the passengers and crews of several airline flights.

Land-based watchers in New Zealand’s far north saw the re-entry.

Mr L. W. Smith, a steward on an Air New Zealand DC8 flight to Auckland described the re-entry.

“It was directly ahead of us like two headlights, travelling west to east,” he said.

“Then things began to happen. There was an explosion, a reddish flash, and sparks flew as the modules separated, and things began to disintegrate.”

Capt. Ross McWilliams described the re-entry as very spectacular, the sight of a lifetime.

Capt. A. A. E. Lawson, of an Air New Zealand Melbourne – Christchurch flight, said that the re-entry appeared as two fiery trails through space resembling shooting stars.

Passengers and crew of a jetliner carrying 176 servicemen from Vietnam to Honolulu caught sight of the command module during its re-entry.

Bo Staunning, a stewardess from Norway, who saw the flaming command module said: “It looked like a big, whitish-yellow star. It was about the same size as the biggest start we see in the sky.”

Passengers on a Qantas jet drank a toast in champagne, after witnessing the successful re-entry of Apollo 13 into earth’s atmosphere.

They were on a flight to Sydney from San Francisco.

Capt. Jock McKee said: “Dawn was just breaking and I think everyone was a bit worried that it would not be visible. We picked up the first shine of the module about two minutes before it started to glow. The glow was followed by a brightly-coloured flash and two explosions.”

back in Sydney

This article, from page 3 of Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph for 19th April 1970, tells the story of those at Sydney Video, in the Overseas Telecommunications Commission’s international exchange at Paddington in Sydney.

Mentioned are Laurie Rutledge, Peter Trost, Ed Mason and Peter O’Donaghue.