The Man Who Saved Apollo 11
What if you knew a secret that could avert disaster?
In july 21, 1969, the day after the apollo 11 moon landing, Captain Henry Brandli, E59, reported to work as usual at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. A meteorologist with two master’s degrees from MIT, he analyzed images from a weather satellite that was part of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP). The orbiter provided extremely precise weather forecasts for Corona, a top-secret satellite system that photographed Cold War hot spots. So highly classified was Corona that when Brandli began working on it while serving in Vietnam, he was led to believe that his weather reports were simply aiding the war effort. Brandli became one of the few people briefed on the DMSP’s real mission when he moved to Hawaii in 1967. His forecasts ensured that Corona film capsules returned to earth in clear weather. “It was really hush-hush,” Brandli says.
The millions of dollars’ worth of ultra-advanced equipment he controlled fascinated him. “No one had anything like it at the time,” he says. “I saw stuff that no one else had ever seen before—ocean currents, the insides of hurricanes and typhoons, the aurora borealis up close. It was like seeing images of Mars thirty years before the Mars Rover.” Among the DMSP satellites’ futuristic talents was the ability to forecast weather five days in advance anywhere from the equator up to 25 degrees latitude. That July day, as astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins sped toward Earth, Brandli was poring over some frightening DMSP data: in just 72 hours, the astronauts would splash down in the midst of a deadly thunderstorm known to meteorologists as a “screaming eagle.”
“I knew Apollo 11 was scheduled to splash down three hundred miles north of the equator in the Pacific, about one hundred miles from Christmas Island,” Brandli says. “I knew how fast a screaming eagle moved, and calculated that it would be right in their path as they descended. The storm would have destroyed their parachutes, and the astronauts would have been killed.”
Brandli was the only person with access to this critical information—NASA’s satellites weren’t nearly as advanced—and he was forbidden to share what he knew. “I could have lost my commission,” says Brandli, “but there was no doubt in my mind about what I had to do.” He picked up the phone.
Fortune favored Brandli’s decision. The man in charge of forecasting for Apollo 11, Navy Captain Willard “Sam” Houston, happened to know about DMSP. Brandli arranged a clandestine meeting in a parking lot at Hickam, where he hurried Houston into his office and showed him the ominous images.
Houston was convinced. He managed to persuade his superiors—without proof—to reroute the entire USS Hornet carrier task force, which would greet the Apollo 11 crew on splashdown. In a risky move, the task force was redirected even before receiving official orders, and NASA and the Navy changed Apollo 11’s reentry plan at the last minute. “Thank God Sam Houston knew about the project,” says Brandli. “If it had been anybody but him, I don’t know what I would have done.”
After the Corona project was declassified in 1995, Brandli learned that reconnaissance planes had been sent out to double-check his forecast. “I was right on the money,” he laughs.
He shared his story in Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine in 2005, and was recently honored for his service by the National Reconnaissance Office. Brandli, who retired from the Air Force a lieutenant colonel and now lives in Melbourne, Florida, has no regrets about keeping mum all those years. “Working with that technology enabled me to be more advanced in my profession than anybody else, and that was enough for me,” he says. “Besides, I just alerted the right person. After that, it was in God’s hands.