The historic Apollo 11 mission to land on the Moon is best remembered for Neil Armstrong’s ‘one giant leap’ and Buzz Aldrin’s ‘magnificent desolation’ comments, but the crew saw something that no-one had ever seen before – a Total Solar Eclipse from space.
As the crew were journeying to the Moon, and having left Earth’s orbit, they suddenly found themselves directly in the Moon’s umbra – its inner core of total darkness – on 19 July, 1969.
“We didn’t expect it, and we struggled to get a picture of it,” said Aldrin, 87, speaking to BBC Sky At Night Magazine.
“But we saw the solar corona we were in the shadow of the Moon – our journey to the Moon was literally in its shadow. It was a bonus.”
“I don’t think the people who made the documentary In The Shadow Of The Moon knew about what we saw,” said Aldrin, referencing the 2007 documentary that brought together the crew members of NASA’s Apollo missions to tell their stories.
“I think they meant by the title that the Moon was bigger than all of us, or something like that, but I don’t think they understood what happened to us on Apollo 11 – we used the alignment of the Sun and Moon, and our journey to the Moon was literally in its shadow.”
A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes precisely between Earth and the Sun, and casting a deep shadow over a portion of Earth’s surface.
However, the Moon is constantly eclipsing the Sun from points in space.
In fact, the only time there isn’t a Moon shadow somewhere in the vicinity of Earth is at Full Moon.
Aldrin must be unique in that he’s seen a total solar eclipse from space twice.
While Apollo 11’s flight plan inadvertently created a short totality for the crew, Aldrin’s previous spaceflight on Gemini 12 was redirected to see one that was also visible from South America.
Gemini 12 – in which Aldrin performed 5 hours 30 minutes of spacewalks – is also remembered for his taking of the first-ever ‘space selfie’.
While Aldrin went on to be the lunar module pilot on Apollo 11, Gemini 12 Command Pilot James A. Lovell was later to fly on both Apollo 8 and the near-disastrous Apollo 13.