U.S. Navy frogman Bob Coggins attaches the flotation collar to the Apollo 8 after splashdown in 1968, while a second frogman waves to the camera recording the moment. Provided by NASA

The moment was a marvel.

Bob Coggins looked straight up from a helicopter in the far Pacific Ocean to see Apollo 8 fire off reentry rockets to brake its descent, illuminating the parachutes above the capsule in a spectacular orange glow.

The capsule was the first human-piloted spacecraft to orbit the moon. The Charleston native and Georgetown resident still kicks himself about it 50 years later.

"They lit the rockets and we were real close. The flames were coming up from the bottom of the capsule, bright orange. The reflection on the parachutes was the most beautiful thing you could ever see," Coggins said.

Neither he nor the other Navy recovery frogmen aboard the copter thought to take a photo.

"I could have made a lot of money on that picture," Coggins said with a rueful grin. The memory is so indelible that he still sees the exact colors and is commissioning an artist to paint it for him and the world.

Apollo 8 touched down 1,000 miles south/southwest of Hawaii in the predawn of Dec. 27, 1968 — the first splashdown and recovery at night for NASA and the U.S. Navy. The aircraft carrier waiting to pick up the three hero astronauts and the craft was the U.S.S. Yorktown, now berthed as an exhibit at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant.

Coggins, 74, recently took part in an event at the naval and maritime museum commemorating the 50th anniversary. He has that gruff Navy sense of humor and a strong resemblance to the late John Glenn, the astronaut who was the first American to orbit the Earth.


Former Navy frogman Bob Coggins recently looked over a Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum replica of the Apollo 8 space capsule he helped recover in the Pacific Ocean in 1968. Provided by Chris Hauff/Patriots Point 

Coggins' team was one of three deployed in helicopters at various distances from the Yorktown for the Apollo splashdown. They lucked out, Coggins said. The capsule came down almost on top of them.

For astronauts Jim Lovell, Frank Borman and Bill Anders, the Apollo mission was one of those moments of a lifetime. They were welcomed aboard the ship with honors, a call from President Lyndon Johnson, a 500-pound cake and a national television audience watching live.

The next year, Lovell stood next to aviation legend Charles Lindbergh to watch the moon-landing mission launch of Apollo 11. Lindbergh told him the public admiration of Apollo 8 and its crew was almost like the worldwide awe at Lindbergh's first-of-its-kind trans-Atlantic flight 41 years earlier, Lovell said later.

But it was just another day's work for the three underwater demolition team frogmen who secured the craft to its flotation and helped the astronauts into rescue baskets to be hoisted to the helicopter.

In fact, amid all the hoopla as the capsule and recovery rafts were hoisted aboard the Yorktown, the divers waited in the water more than an hour for their turn, while a curious 12-feet-long white tip shark rose from the depths.

They raised their hands to the ship crew to signal shark, but everybody thought they were celebrating, too.

"I told myself, 'I'm going to swim over to my buddies to give the shark a choice," Coggins recalled. "And I did." As they finally were hoisted up in the net baskets, you could see the shark in the water underneath, he said.

Coggins went on to a 40-year career with the Navy, served in Vietnam twice. He still dives and just got back from a shark-seeing dive off Mexico with his son — up close and personal with 1,000-pound beasts. But not too close, not again. 

"We're smart enough to stay in the cage," he said.

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.