Apollo Recovery

Apollo 11 & 12 Recovery
Written by Bob Fish, USS Hornet Museum Trustee
View photos from Splashdown 2009
and Splashdown 45

The USS Hornet (CVS-12) was selected by the Navy as the Prime Recovery Ship (PRS) for Apollo 11, America's first lunar landing mission. On July 24, 1969, President Richard Nixon, ADM John S. McCain (CINCPAC) and a number of other dignitaries were present while Hornet recovered astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins and their spacecraft Columbia. Armstrong and Aldrin were the first two humans to walk on the Moon.

The Navy units embarked on the USS Hornet that participated in the Apollo 11 recovery were: Helicopter Anti-submarine Warfare Squadron Four (HS-4) flying the Sikorsky SeaKing SH-3D helicopter; Underwater Demolition Teams Eleven and Twelve (UDT-11 and UDT-12); Airborne Early Warning Squadron VAW-111 flying the Grumman E-1B Tracer, and Fleet Logistics Support Squadron VR-30 flying the Grumman C-1A Trader.

Four months later, the USS Hornet (CVS-12) repeated this flawless performance as PRS for the recovery of Apollo 12, America's second lunar landing mission. On November 24, 1969, the spacecraft Yankee Clipper, with its all-Navy astronaut crew of Pete Conrad, Alan Bean and Dick Gordon, splashed down a little over 2 miles from the aircraft carrier.

(click images for larger version)
Mission Summary - "Hornet Plus Three"
    The eight-day Apollo 11 mission marks the first time in mankind's history that humans walked on the surface of another planetary body. On July 20, 1969, two astronauts, Mission Commander Neil Armstrong and LM pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr, landed on the Moon in the Lunar Module (LM) Eagle.  During a historic 2 1/2 hour lunar surface excursion, the astronauts set up scientific experiments, took photographs, and collected rock and soil samples. After the Eagle rendezvoused with the CSM Columbia, the astronauts returned to Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. Apollo 11 fulfilled President John F. Kennedy's challenge for America to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the 1960's decade had ended.
Flight Profile

Apollo 11 was launched on a Saturn V on July 16, 1969 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After 1 1/2 Earth orbits, the S-IVB stage was re-ignited, putting the spacecraft on course for the Moon. The S-IVB was fired again once the CSM reached the Moon to insert the spacecraft into orbit around it.  On July 20, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin entered the lunar module (LM) Eagle and descended to the lunar surface. The LM landed in the Sea of Tranquility with Armstrong reporting, "Houston, Tranquility Base here - the Eagle has landed." Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface several hours later stating, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind".

    Aldrin descended the ladder several minutes later. Both astronauts unveiled a plaque on the LM descent stage with the inscription: "Here Men From Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon", July 1969 A.D, We Came In Peace For All Mankind." The astronauts deployed the scientific instruments, took photographs, and collected 22 kilograms of lunar rock and soil samples.The astronauts traversed a total distance of about 250 meters. The EVA ended after 2 hours, 31 minutes when the astronauts returned to the LM and closed the hatch.
    After spending over 21 hours on the lunar surface, the Eagle blasted off. Once the LM had docked with Columbia, the two astronauts transferred to the CM, and the LM was jettisoned into lunar orbit (the crash site of the Eagle on the Moon is still unknown). Three days later, just before Columbia was positioned for re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, it was separated from the Service Module. Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24 at 5:50 a.m. local time, after travelling over 950,000 miles in a little more than 8 days. The splashdown point was 920 miles southwest of Honolulu and 13 miles from the USS Hornet.
Recovery Profile

Columbia floated down under its 3 orange & white parachutes, hitting the water just before dawn and coming to rest in a Stable 2 (upside down) position. The astronauts triggered the release of the three flotation bags, which righted the CM in about 7 minutes. The first member of the UDT-11 recovery team jumped from helicopter #64 into the water and attached a sea anchor to the CM to keep it from drifting. Three more UDT swimmers then jumped in and attached the flotation collar to stabilize the CM in the choppy water. They inflated and positioned two life rafts - one for biological decontamination and the other for helicopter hoist operations.

    The possibility of the astronauts bringing a dangerous Moon germ back to Earth was considered remote, but not impossible. At this point in the recovery, the UDT decontamination specialist, LT Clancy Hatleberg, jumped into the water from helicopter #66 and swam to one of the rafts. He donned a special Biological Isolation Garment (BIG suit) and then handed 3 other BIG suits into the spacecraft so the Apollo 11 crew could put them on. These suits created an effective biological barrier for the astronauts who had come in contact with lunar dust so any germs wouldn't spread to the recovery team.
    Once the astronauts were "bagged," in their head-to-toe garments, Hatleberg assisted each one through the CM hatch into the decontamination raft. After closing the hatch, he wiped the 3 astronauts with a mitt doused with sodium-hypochlorite, a bleach-like agent, to ensure the outside of their BIGs was decontaminated from any lunar germs. In turn, one of them scrubbed him. Hatleberg then wiped parts of the CM with betadine to clean off any dust that might be present. NASA considered it very important to contain any possible outside contaminates at the scene of the splashdown.
    Hatleberg signaled CDR Don Jones, pilot of helicopter #66 to position his SeaKing for the astronaut retrieval process. When the helicopter was hovering 40 feet above and slightly to the left of the spacecraft, the air crewmen in the cargo hold lowered a Billy Pugh rescue net down to the raft. The 3 astronauts were hoisted up one at a time and given a verbal physical check by NASA flight surgeon Dr. Bill Carpentier. When all 3 were aboard, the helicopter flew 1/2 mile back to the Hornet and landed on the flight deck. President Nixon and his staff watched intently from the ship's Flag Bridge.
    Once Recovery One's engines were shut down and it was configured for shipboard handling, all but one member of the SeaKing's crew exited. With the 3 astronauts and NASA doctor in back, it was towed onto elevator #2. "Helo 66" was lowered into hangar bay #2 and towed to a position adjacent to the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF). The astronauts exited into bright TV lights and cheers of hundreds of ship's crewmen. They walked briskly about 30 feet to the Mobile Quarantine Facility, where they were locked in.
    The astronauts replaced their BIG suits with NASA flight suits and were given a more thorough physical exam by the doctor. Once they were ready, President Nixon descended from the Flag Bridge and stood by the front doorway. There, with 500 million people around the world watching on live TV, the President welcomed the lunar explorers back to Earth. The ceremony lasted about 10 minutes with a lot of light-hearted banter going back and forth. The President remarked how the world seemed bigger now but that its population never felt as close together as they did watching the mission unfold.
    After the astronauts left the splashdown scene, the UDT decontamination equipment was placed in the "decon" raft and sunk. Columbia was readied for its own retrieval. As soon as President Nixon had departed, the 44,000-ton ship maneuvered carefully and crept alongside the 5-ton spacecraft. Once the CM was abreast of the island superstructure, a shot line was thrown to the UDT personnel on top of the bobbing spacecraft. Within a few minutes, the ship's Boat & Aircraft crane had "reeled" it near the starboard elevator and plucked it from the tropic waters. The flight of Apollo 11 had ended.
    The Command Module was lowered onto the starboard elevator and its flotation collar removed. It was placed on a dolly, towed into hangar bay 2 and secured next to the MQF. Once a plastic tunnel was put in place connecting the two, the Moon rocks were transferred into the MQF so they could be packaged for immediate airlift back to Johnson Space Center. Soon thereafter, the rest of the dignitaries left and the USS Hornet sailed for Pearl Harbor with a very unique and precious cargo!

For a comprehensive description of HORNET’s Apollo history, purchase:
Hornet Plus Three: The Story of the Apollo 11 Recovery.

For more information about the Apollo missions visit the National Air and Space Museum

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