It wasn't easy to put a man on the moon. Just ask photographer Christopher Sherman, who recently set out to pay homage to one of humanity's greatest feats, the Apollo 11 mission, when Neil Armstrong first set foot onto the moon 50 years ago.
Sherman, the nomadic commercial and fine arts photographer who was previously based in Austin, Texas, was out last week shooting images of fireflies in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when he saw paramotor pilot Ty Johnson flying above a nearby field. Inspiration struck, and Sherman quickly tracked down Johnson as he landed.
Sherman wanted to photograph Johnson with his rig — a parachute and a fan motor strapped to his back — soaring across the Iowa skies. With the full moon and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing approaching, Sherman had the idea to capture Johnson in transit across the moon. The project sounded straightforward enough, but the duo faced several challenges in creating the shot.
Because of the relatively light weight of Johnson's aircraft, winds played a huge factor in even getting off the ground. He also was restricted from flying longer than 30 minutes after sunset, giving Sherman a very short window to capture the shot against the night sky.
The pair originally tried to get the shot on July 11, when the moon was about three-quarters full. They set up two-way communication using cellular phones, with Johnson using ear buds to receive directions from Sherman. However, the drone of Johnson's engine drowned out his voice when he tried to communicate back to Sherman.
Unable to communicate both ways, the pair was only able to create an image of Johnson passing below the moon.
"I kept telling him to go a particular direction, but he wouldn't do it," Sherman said. "And I couldn't understand why at the time, because I couldn't hear him. It was only after he landed that first time that he told me he was hemmed in by the subdivision to the south, so he couldn't fly where I was directing him to go. I thought I was giving bad directions or he couldn't hear me or something."
Dismayed, but undeterred, the duo returned a few nights later, with the moon nearing its fullest phase on July 14. Johnson texted Sherman to say he thought the conditions would be good enough to fly, and they both raced to their location to get set up. Time was now the enemy, as Johnson needed to get his rig set up quickly and get into the air, while Sherman prepared to shoot.
Sherman knew if he didn't get the shot on this evening, his hopes of getting it before the 50th anniversary of the moon landing would dwindle significantly. The moon would pass full and weather might prevent him from getting another chance before the big day.
"I knew what the stakes were going into the second shot, and I learned a lot from that first attempt," Sherman said. "It allowed me to plan going into the July 14 shot. Ty called so late in the evening on the 14th, and my main worry was that we wouldn't get a shot at all. He had to set up his machine and get in the air and then maneuver into position before it got too late. It took him longer to set up than I thought it would and longer to get into the air because of the wind gusts. That was my primary worry."
The winds cooperated, and operating over a more open field, Johnson was able to take Sherman's direction without fear of flying over a populated area. He was able to climb into position while Sherman focused on the moon. Johnson made several transits across the face of the moon and Sherman fired away.
"I got him in position by voice pretty quickly," Sherman said. "Ty says it was the location over an open field and good winds that allowed him to just float up in that particular area for so long."
"I was ecstatic that we got the shot, not only once, but several times," Sherman said. "I actually had him make three passes across the moon one after the other, so a surprising number of shots came out. The winds were in our favor that night for him to be able to do that."
Sherman envisioned his image as an homage to Neil Armstrong's first steps upon the moon, but as he noted on his website, his daughter pointed out the image's striking similarity to the famous scene from "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial" when Elliott and E.T. pass in front of the moon on Elliott's bicycle.
"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," Sherman said on the blog.
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