25 Aug 2021

Apollo 8 mission in 1968: NZ got late call from US over splashdown, documents show

8:47 am on 25 August 2021

Declassified government documents show officials got a late call from the United States seeking co-operation when the splash down site of its Apollo 8 mission shifted into New Zealand-managed airspace.

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The Apollo 8 crew - Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman. Photo: NASA

The Apollo 8 mission was the first manned space flight to orbit the moon, in December 1968.

The mission was a precursor to the famous Apollo 11 moon mission, which followed in 1969, in which man first stepped foot on the moon.

Weeks before the Apollo 8 mission launched, New Zealand officials in Washington were approached by the Federal Aviation Authority, because calculations for the spacecraft's return to earth had changed.

"The FAA has advised, in confidence, that an alternative landing site for the Apollo 8 spacecraft to be launched in December will fall within the Fiji far which is controlled by the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authorities," the confidential documents read.

"The FAA has asked whether at this stage and before proceeding further they could have assurances of New Zealand co-operation should it be necessary to bring the craft down in the Fiji far area.

"This would involve putting into effect an air space block for a short period during the estimated arrival time of the space ship, about 47 minutes, and co-operating in controlling the movement of search and rescue aircraft during the subsequent recovery period.

"Please confirm that you are willing to co-operate as set out above, and also advise who the Americas should contact in Fiji at working level to discuss the operations further."

The New Zealand government replied the next day, offering to go above and beyond in support of the Apollo mission.

"Civil Aviation Department is happy to place Nandi Rescue Co-ordination Centre at the disposal of FAA for Apollo 8 spaceshot, and to provide airspace restrictions as required," they said.

"Contact for FAA at Nandi is Mr J. Wad, Regional Airways officer and officer in charge, Nandi RCC. If required, Ward could visit Hawaii for briefing."

They also offered the Americans detailed charts and maps of the region.

Earthrise, taken from Apollo 8 by William Anders on December 24, 1968

The first colour image of the Earth taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts on 24 December, 1968. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Apollo 8 splashed down on 27 December, somewhere between Fiji and Hawaii.

A US helicopter picked up the spacecraft and transported it to the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier, about 90 minutes after it had hit the water.

While it is unclear whether the Apollo 8 did come down within New Zealand airspace, it is evident that the mission led to greater co-operation between the United States and New Zealand over future moon missions.

Documents from future Apollo missions show the FAA simply advising New Zealand of landing sites, after an agreement was reached over the Apollo space programme.

For instance, one document from the Apollo 16 mission, shows the FAA advising the Secretary of Foreign Affairs that the landing zone had shifted by about 400 miles, and was now inside New Zealand airspace.

Meanwhile, the documents also show Prime Minister Keith Holyoake's message to President Lyndon B. Johnson, after the Apollo 8 mission's success.

"On behalf of the people of New Zealand I send sincere congratulations to all those concerned with the magnificent achievement of the Apollo Eight project," Holyoake said.

"The knowledge and courage of the scientists and astronauts involved in the project have made the moon a province of the earth."

While New Zealand came to an agreement with the United States around space flights in the Pacific, an international treaty was being formed through the United Nations essentially covering the same thing.

The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space, was formed during the late 1960s, and New Zealand was one of the first countries to signal it would sign the agreement.

But when it came time to formally sign and ratify the agreement in July 1969, officials screwed up.

"We regret that an error was made in sending to the foreign and commonwealth office for forwarding to their ambassador in Moscow the instrument of ratification intended for deposit in London," a memo from London to Washington and Wellington reads.

"We discovered this our midday today (8 July), by which time the ambassador in Moscow would almost certainly have deposited the instrument with the Soviet authorities, who presumably did not, repeat, not notice that the wrong document had been left with them."

Officials discussed what to do after the mix up, whether to tell the Soviets, and whether it mattered when their intentions were sound.

But the error came one week before the Apollo 11 mission took off, meaning New Zealand risked not being party to the treaty during the first mission to the moon.

The documents released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade date back to the 1950s, and include New Zealand's role in discussions over space law.

Sir Leslie Munro, New Zealand's then ambassador to the United States, was one of the world's leading experts on space law at the time and played an influential role in what was eventually set out by the United Nations.

Sir Leslie was frequently quoted by newspapers in the United States, such as the New York Times, and was asked to speak about space law at MIT.

Officials in New Zealand were concerned about how outspoken he was.

"Sir Leslie has been exploring new domains in emphasizing his interest in the control of outer space and in the urgency of some kind of international action following the launching by the Soviet Union and the United States of satellites," one confidential letter from New Zealand's United Nations representative read, in March 1958.

"So far Sir Leslie has confined his observations to the legal aspects of sovereignty in outer space. On the political side, he has repeated his view that there should be an international conference of scientists and diplomats to examine the problem in all its aspects, indicating also his position that the United Nations should not be ignored as a suitable forum for producing inter-governmental agreement.

"It is my belief that, in the absence of a policy statement from the Americans or the Russians and of a greater knowledge of all the issues involved, he could conceivably find himself on dangerous ground if he developed his thinking too far in public."

They were particularly concerned about Sir Leslie discussing disarmament issues.

The letter said it would be "helpful" if the Department of External Affairs had any views on his statements, and if any action should be taken to prevent further statements.

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