Apollo 11

Apollo 11

Aldrin Apollo 11 original.jpg

Apollo 11 Armstrong was the mission commander for Apollo 11.  Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin was the Lunar Excursion Module (the “Eagle”) Pilot, and Michael Collins was the Command Module (the “Columbia”) Pilot.  Aldrin and Collins were both U.S. Air Force.  

Apollo 11 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida atop a massive Saturn V rocket on 16 July 1969.  The Lunar Excursion Module, with Armstrong and Aldrin aboard and Collins orbiting overhead, touched down on the lunar surface at 1517 Eastern Standard Time 20 July 1969 at a point technically designated “Eagle Base” on the “Sea of Tranquility.”  

However after completing the post-landing checklist, Armstrong announced “Houston, Tranquility Base here.  The Eagle has landed.”

Map of Moon showing prospective sites for Apollo 11. Site 2 was chosen.
Map of Moon showing prospective sites for Apollo 11. Site 2 was chosen.
NASA Astronaut Tom Jones
Aldrin’s bootprint; part of an experiment to test the properties of the lunar regolith

At 2356 (Eastern) 20 July 1969, Neal Armstrong first set foot on the moon.  (I watched it with a crowd of people gathered around some guy who had the foresight to bring a portable TV to Big Meadows campground in Shenandoah National Park, that just barely got reception.)  

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Aldrin next to the Passive Seismic Experiment Package with Eagle in the background

Neal Armstrong’s words would result in decades of debate as to whether he forgot to say “a” before “man” or whether the “a” was garbled by static.  

What everyone heard was, “That’s one small step for man.  One giant leap for mankind.”  The official transcript has it as “That’s one small step for {a} man.  One giant leap for mankind.”  

A photograph of Neil Armstrong taken by Buzz Aldrin. This is one of the few photographs of Armstrong on the lunar surface; most of the time he held the camera.

Regardless, the mission was far more dangerous than it appeared, and had more close-calls than were publicized at the time, so I’m not about to quibble over an “a.”  The man was a hero.

Aldrin salutes the deployed United States flag on the lunar surface
Circular insignia: eagle with wings outstretched holds olive branch on Moon with Earth in background, in blue and gold border.

On 5 June 1969, the aircraft carrier USS HORNET (CVS-12,) under the command of Captain Carl J. Seiberlich, was selectedas the primary recovery ship.  Arriving at Pearl Harbor from Alameda on 5 July, HORNET embarked HS-4 SH-3 Sea King helicopters that specialized in Apollo recovery missions, specialized divers of UDT Detachment Apollo, a NASA recovery team (35 men) and about 120 press and TV personnel, as well as a “practice” Apollo command module.  Most of HORNET’s air wing was put ashore to make room.

Saturn V SA-506, the rocket carrying the Apollo 11 spacecraft, moves out of the Vehicle Assembly Building towards Launch Complex 39

On 12 July 1969, HORNET sailed from Pearl Harbor and headed for the planned splashdown site about 1,100 miles southwest of Oahu.  President Nixon and an entourage that included Secretary of State William P. Rogers and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger flew on Air Force One to Johnston Atoll, and then on Marine One to the command ship USS ARLINGTON (AGMR-2, a converted light carrier,) and then the next day took the helicopter to HORNET to be greeted by the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC,) Admiral John S. McCain, Jr.

The Apollo 11 Command and Service Modules (CSM) are photographed from the Lunar Module (LM) in lunar orbit during the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. The lunar surface below is in the north central Sea of Fertility. The coordinates of the center of the picture are 51 degrees east longitude and 1 degree north latitude. About half of the crater Taruntius G is visible in the lower left corner of the picture. Part of Taruntius H can be seen at lower right.

The location of the recovery was subsequently moved 215 NM northeast of the planned point based on imagery from top secret intelligence satellites that indicated a weather front was moving in that would significantly affect the planned recovery point.  (There were only a handful of weather satellites at that time.)  

Eagle in lunar orbit photographed from Columbia

This change necessitated an alteration to the re-entry flight parameters, subjecting the astronauts to greater than planned g-force deceleration.  Compounding the problem, the ship suffered a casualty with her navigation equipment forcing a reliance on celestial navigation, which with the overcast was problematic.  The upshot was that HORNET knew she was in the general area of the planned splashdown, but did not know precisely where she was.

Prior to sunrise in 24 June, HORNET launched four Sea King helicopters and three Grumman E-1 Tracer Airborne Early Warning aircraft of VAW-111.  Two of the E-1’s provided radar coverage and the third provided airborne communications relay. One of the E-1’s had a radar problem, and the communications relay aircraft had to assume that task.  Two of the SH-3’s carried recovery equipment and divers.  The third SH-3 carried photo and movie cameras, and the fourth carried a special decontamination diver and a flight surgeon.

At 0544 local time, the helicopters spotted Columbia’s drogue parachutes deploy, as it turned out, only 1,000 feet from the E-1, which had to turn away to avoid the capsule.  

Seven minutes later, Columbia hit the water 13 NM from HORNET and flipped upside down, but was righted when the astronauts deployed the flotation bags. The divers from the SH-3’s quickly attached a sea anchor and additional flotation collars, and deployed rafts.  

The divers provided biological isolation garments to the astronauts and helped them into a life raft.  The astronauts were rubbed down with a chemical solution intended to remove any lunar dust and then were hoisted aboard the recovery helicopter and the “contaminated” raft was deliberately sunk.

CAPCOM Charles Duke (left), with backup crewmen Jim Lovell and Fred Haise listening in during Apollo 11’s descent

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The SH-3 then flew the astronauts to HORNET, touched down and was lowered into the hangar bay where the astronauts were then put into the Mobile Quarantine Facility (QRF) for 21 Days in the remote chance they’d picked up any pathogens on the Moon.  

Crew of Apollo 11 in quarantine after returning to Earth, visited by Richard Nixon
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President Nixon welcomed the Astronauts back through the window of the quarantine facility and then wasted no time getting off the ship.  The HORNET then hoisted the Columbia command module onto the ship using the ship’s crane.  The Columbia was then attached to the Mobil Quarantine Facility with a flexible tunnel.  Upon return to Pearl Harbor, the QRF (with the astronauts still inside) and Columbia were offloaded from HORNET, and flown separately to the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas.

The recovery of Apollo 11 was the most complex of all, as it was the first lunar mission and due to the protocols dictated by the “Extra-Terrestrial Exposure Law” intended to prevent any possible pathogens from being returned to Earth.  

Columbia floats on the ocean as Navy divers assist in retrieving the astronauts

Nevertheless all 31 U.S. manned space missions before 1975 (and advent of the Space Shuttle) were recovered by U.S. Navy ships.  Although the Soviet Union recovered their astronauts on land using a retrograde rocket system, the U.S. determined that landing at sea was safer, although that required considerably more coordination.

Apollo 11 Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

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Apollo 11
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