Putting a man on the moon: celebrating Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary

Jul 18, 2019

Christopher Sherman

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Putting a man on the moon: celebrating Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary

Jul 18, 2019

Christopher Sherman

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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I’ve been fascinated with the idea of incorporating the moon into photos whenever possible. And so, with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing on July 20th, I was excited by the possibility to shoot something special for the occasion: Putting a man on the moon. The man here is Ty Johnson, a paramotor pilot, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As NASA will tell you, getting a man to the moon is harder than it looks. This is how we did it.

Moonset from Yosemite Valley. f/6.3, iso 64, 1/200 sec. 600mm.
Copyright Christopher V. Sherman. See my moon gallery here.

I spotted Ty’s paramotor – a powered-parachute – in the air when I was shooting Iowa’s amazing, magical fireflies. I chased him down as he landed with a simple request: Let me shoot you in flight. He agreed and in a few days we got to work.

Ty Johnson prepares to take off in his paramotor. Copyright Christopher V. Sherman

I wanted two sets of shots, him passing in front of the moon, which would be shot from the ground, and a set from the air, with me following him with a drone camera.

As with NASA, we had our own set of restrictions facing us and safety was a priority. Paramotors, because they are so light (a two stroke engine, a prop, a parachute and a chair for the pilot) have wind restrictions in order to fly safely. We had to take these into consideration just for Ty to take off, not to mention getting him lined up in front of the moon. The wind was our enemy. And for the actual moon shot, so were the clouds.

We tried first on July 11th, the moon a Waxing Gibbous at 73.9% full. We coordinated on the ground with a planned series of shots and after he took off I called him on his cell to provide direction. He could hear me through ear buds but the noise of the propeller and motor washed out much of his replies. It was one way communication.

Paramotor pilots face numerous flight rules. The big one we were dealing with: No flying over congested areas. With a subdivision to south, we were boxed in, making lining up with the moon difficult in the short amount of time we had before darkness. Another FAA paramotor flight rule: No flying 30 minutes after sunset. Time was ticking and the winds were stronger at altitude.

A shot from our first attempt on July 11th, the moon a Waxing Gibbous at 73.9% full, below:

Ty Johnson flying a paramotor over the moon. f/6.3, iso 400, 1/160 sec, 600mm. Copyright Christopher V. Sherman

I got him going over the moon but that was it. It was best we could hope for that night. It was time to land.

The next few nights were a no-go. Winds were just too high to fly.

Then, on July 14th, at 8:17pm, with the moon a waxing gibbous at 97.1% full, Ty texted: The winds had finally died down a bit. Was it too late to shoot?

I’d meet him at the field, I told him. Sunset was at 8:40pm.

Seconds were ticking by, the sun was setting and we had to get to the field. He then had to setup his aircraft and get into position. And had the winds even died down enough to take off?

Ty put his machine together and put on the propeller as we discussed the shot and flight, and then I drove to my shooting position. The moon was lower on the horizon and further east than on July 11th, which would allow him to fly over fields, avoiding the subdivision to the south, giving him more maneuvering room.

I put the camera on a tripod this time and auto-focused in on the moon rather than following him and shooting by hand, as I did on the 11th. I then switched to manual focus. It was getting darker by the moment. I would still have to change exposure and iso settings by the time he got into position.

The moon a waxing gibbous at 97.1% f/6.3, iso 80, 1/160 sec.
Copyright Christopher V. Sherman

Ty lay his wing out on the ground. The winds were unsteady. Would he be able to take off?

I watched from a short distance. A first attempt and a gust took the parachute in the wrong direction. He re-positioned again into the wind. The chute went up, caught the wind. A short run, and he was in the air.

I let him climb and then made the call…..

I gave directions by phone: more altitude…. head east…. southeast, away from me, toward the moon.

The winds were coming out of the south and he was headed south southwest toward the moon, giving him a stability that he didn’t have a few days earlier. I needed him further away from my camera, so he and his aircraft were smaller than the moon and would fit inside it.

He was on track. A finger’s length away. Closer….

Heading toward the moon. f/6.3, iso 160, 1/200 sec. Copyright Christopher V. Sherman

Turn southeast…. climb…

Heading toward the moon. f/6.3, iso 160, 1/200 sec. 600mm.
Copyright Christopher V. Sherman

Closer still….

Heading toward the moon. f/6.3, iso 160, 1/200 sec. 600mm.
Copyright Christopher V. Sherman

Almost. Not too much altitude. Ease off on the throttle a little. Don’t over shoot it. Further east.

That was it. The parachute’s in the moon. Keep going.

Heading toward the moon. f/6.3, iso 160, 1/200 sec. 600mm.
Copyright Christopher V. Sherman

Climb. That’s it’s.

The chute is in the moon. f/6.3, iso 160, 1/200 sec. 600mm.
Copyright Christopher V. Sherman

Later we estimated he was about 1.5 km from my shooting spot. Below is an estimate of our positions using The Photographer’s Ephemeris web app (mine the red pin, his the grey pin).

Screen shot. The Photographer’s Ephemeris web app. Estimates of locations.

I clicked away as the light faded. Ty could hear the camera shutter as I guided him across the moon.

Paramotor pilot Ty Johnson passes in front of the moon. f/6.3, iso 160, 1/200 sec. 600mm. Shot from about 1.5 km. Copyright Christopher V. Sherman
gif version of sequence of photos. Ty Johnson passes in front of the moon. f/6.3, iso 160, 1/200 sec. 600mm. Shot from about 1.5 km. Copyright Christopher V. Sherman

I checked the shots and he swung back across the moon a second time. Some shots were in focus, some were not. But we still had time.

I adjusted the exposure settings from 1/200 sec to 1/320 sec and I bumped up the ISO from 160 to 400. It was getting darker still. One more time I directed him to make another pass.

We got it for sure this time:

100% zoom. Paramotor pilot Ty Johnson passes in front of the moon on July 14, 2019. f/6.3, iso 400, 1/320 sec., 600mm. Shot from about 1.5 km. Photo copyright Christopher V. Sherman
Brightened to show colors on the wing. Paramotor pilot Ty Johnson passes in front of the moon on July 14, 2019. f/6.3, iso 400, 1/320 sec., 600mm. Shot from about 1.5 km. Photo copyright Christopher V. Sherman
Paramotor pilot Ty Johnson passes in front of the moon on July 14, 2019. f/6.3, iso 400, 1/320 sec., 600mm. Shot from about 1.5 km. Photo copyright Christopher V. Sherman
Paramotor pilot Ty Johnson passes in front of the moon on July 14, 2019. f/6.3, iso 400, 1/320 sec., 600mm. Shot from about 1.5 km. Photo copyright Christopher V. Sherman
Paramotor pilot Ty Johnson passes in front of the moon on July 14, 2019. f/6.3, iso 400, 1/320 sec., 600mm. Shot from about 1.5 km. Photo copyright Christopher V. Sherman
Paramotor pilot Ty Johnson passes in front of the moon on July 14, 2019. f/6.3, iso 400, 1/320 sec., 600mm. Shot from about 1.5 km. Photo copyright Christopher V. Sherman

Nailed it.

The sun had set 13 minutes ago so these would be silhouette shots as to not over expose the moon. But we had it. Time to return to earth.

Later, when I showed the moon transit shot to my daughter, her first thought was: Hey that’s from the film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. So in addition to celebrating NASA’s Apollo 11 accomplishment, I guess we are in inadvertently paying homage to Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film as well.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Anniversary Edition from Amazon.com

Now, I thought as Ty landed, we have 2 days until the full moon. If we could just get a shot before sunset.

The next day, July 15th, came and went. The winds were between 9 and 15 mph. Too windy to fly.

Today is the July 16th. Full moon. Sunset is at 8:39pm. Moonrise is 8:45pm.

We’ll try again tonight.

Why?

Because you can’t just go to the moon once.

Update: Storms moved in. It rained. No flying for Ty and no moon visible this evening.

About the Author

Christopher V Sherman is is a commercial and fine arts photographer who travels the world taking pictures full-time. You can see more of his work on his website and follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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One response to “Putting a man on the moon: celebrating Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary”

  1. Kurt Schuster Avatar
    Kurt Schuster

    Your management of the logistics involved with taking these pictures is truly remarkable. You’re right, you can’t go to the moon just once. And, once you get the communication issues resolved, your next set will be even better. The detail of the moon and the sharpness of the silhouette are almost unbelievable at f6.3 and 600mm, yet the proof is in these images. Extremely well done!

    I caught this flyer one night while out walking my dog. They were coming in for a landing at the nearby high school athletic field. No comms, quite dark, and only my 135mm mounted. Haven’t seen them since.
    https://www.instagram.com/p/Bb6E4rJlUAw/