Fifty years ago this week, Apollo 11 came to a triumphant conclusion after astronauts splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean.
Once aboard the USS Hornet, they smiled cheerfully for reporters and joked around with President Richard M. Nixon, who said, “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation.”
Though almost no one knew it at the time, the mission had nearly ended in disaster. It was spared at the last minute by two canny meteorologists with access to a top-secret weather satellite.
In the years leading up to Apollo 11, intelligence officials had deployed a network of spy satellites to take pictures of potential missile sites in the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. After taking photos, the satellites would discharge the film in a canister outfitted with parachutes, which would be collected by a cargo plane on its descent to Earth.
Weather was a big factor in this effort. Intelligence officials didn't want to waste valuable film taking pictures of clouds, nor did they want the canisters to parachute into the middle of a storm. So they deployed sophisticated weather satellites to make sure that didn't happen.
“It was so top secret that I wasn't allowed to show anybody,” Air Force meteorologist Hank Brandli told the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance in 2005. “The vice commander wasn't even briefed. It was wicked hush-hush.”
Brandli, who was based at Hickam Air Force base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, issued weather forecasts for the spy program.
And while he had no official role in Apollo 11, he would come to play a key role in the success of the mission.
Three days before the astronauts returned to Earth, he noticed that the command module was set to splash down in the middle of a “screaming eagle,” a term Brandli coined to describe thunderstorms that look like an eagle in satellite images.
In this case, there were “all the signs of a major tropical storm forming over the splashdown site,” Brandli said.
The storm, with its towering clouds and powerful winds, threatened to tear apart the parachutes on the lunar module on its descent into the Pacific. “Without parachutes, they'd have crashed into the ocean with a force that would have killed them instantly,” Brandli told DOMAIN Magazine in 2004.
Brandli was uniquely positioned to forecast the storm, as the weather satellite he used was more advanced than any in NASA's arsenal. But he wasn't allowed to talk about what he had seen.
“I knew that the Apollo 11 would come back, and they would get killed because I had this classified information,” he told Weather-wise magazine in 2003. “A screaming eagle would be moving westward and would hit this area. I know this is going to happen. Nobody is allowed to see my pictures.”
After Brandli discovered the storm, he reached out to Navy meteorologist Willard “Sam” Houston, who handled weather forecasts for the fleet of ships tasked with recovering Apollo 11.
Brandli asked Houston, who was also stationed at Pearl Harbor, to meet him in a parking lot so he could tell him about the impending thunderstorm.
In an unlikely turn of events, Houston also knew about the spy program and had clearance to see the images from the weather satellite.
After reviewing the images, Houston went to Rear Adm. Donald Davis, who was in charge of the recovery fleet, to tell him about the thunderstorm. “But Houston had to convince Admiral Davis without the photos, which were from a satellite that wasn't supposed to exist,” Brandli told DOMAIN. “He couldn't tell him how he knew what he knew.”
With only Houston's word to go on, Davis redirected the USS Hornet to a new splashdown site more than 200 miles away. Given the time it would take for the ship to reach the area, Davis had to issue the order before conferring with NASA. Had Houston been wrong about the forecast, it would have ended both of their careers.
After speaking with Davis, Houston urged intelligence officials to share the top-secret weather forecast with NASA, which redirected the command module to the new splashdown site at the last minute.
On July 24, 1969, the astronauts finally returned to Earth, where they were met with sunny skies and placid seas. Skeptical of the top-secret weather forecast, NASA sent planes to the original landing site “just to see if I had been crying wolf,” Houston told students at the Navy Postgraduate School in 2009. Pilots found the “screaming eagle” tearing through the area just as Brandli had predicted.
Official records from the time note that poor weather forced NASA to change the splashdown site, but they make no mention of Brandli, Houston or the satellite. It was not until President Bill Clinton declassified the spy satellite program in 1995 that the meteorologists could talk about what happened. What is publicly known of their heroics largely comes from interviews they gave before they died, many of which Brandli collected on his personal website. Brandli died in 2007.
Reflecting on the event in 2005, Brandli said how glad he was to have worked with Houston, who received a Navy Commendation Medal for his role in the mission.
“It was a huge undertaking to move the carrier recovery fleet and convince the ‘powers that be’ to change the landing site,” Brandli said. “CAPT Houston did a hell of a job. I often wonder: if it had been anyone else, would it have happened the same way?”