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Fifty Years Ago: Apollo 11 and Hornet + 3

John Uri |
July 24, 2019

See an Apollo legend referenced in this article (Michael Collins) on July 24 at NASA's Johnson Space Center, in the Teague Auditorium.

Revisit the past, revel in the present and focus on the future during a special panel discussion July 24 from 1 to 2 p.m. in the Teague Auditorium. This all-star panel lineup includes Collins, an Apollo 11 astronaut, JSC Director Mark Geyer and NASA astronaut Anne McClain. 

Collins is most well-known for Apollo 11, when he remained in lunar orbit aboard Command Module Columbia as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin explored the lunar surface. 

McClain was selected by NASA in 2013 and recently served as flight engineer aboard the International Space Station for Expeditions 58/59. 

Geyer is currently the director of Johnson, where he oversees 10,000 civil service and contractor employees and a broad range of human spaceflight activities.  

Mark your calendars as these past, present and future facilitators of human space exploration talk about moving forward to an exciting future with a sustainable lunar presence. 

Please note: There will be no time for autographs or photos at this event.

And now, on to the article ...

On July 24, 1969, Apollo 11 was 47,000 miles from Earth and rapidly accelerating toward its home planet when astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins awoke for their last day in space, preparing for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean 950 miles southwest of Hawaii. The previous day, managers were forced to move the splashdown point by 250 miles to the northeast due to inclement weather at the original recovery site. The aircraft carrier USS Hornet, the prime recovery ship for Apollo 11, was speeding for the new splashdown target area. Overcast skies made stellar navigation impossible, so Hornet used the ancient mariner’s technique of dead reckoning to arrive on time and at the proper position to recover the crew and spacecraft. Hornet’s commanding officer, Capt. Carl J. Seiberlich, chose the slogan Hornet Plus 3 for the operation, signifying the safe recovery of the three Apollo 11 astronauts. 

Left: Marine One carrying President Nixon en route to USS Arlington. Image Credit: USMC/Dan McDyre. Middle: President Nixon arrives aboard Arlington. Image Credit: U.S. Navy. Right: President Nixon arrives aboard Hornet.

President Richard M. Nixon was en route to Hornet to greet the astronauts upon their return. He had flown aboard Air Force One from San Francisco via Hawaii to Johnston Island, an atoll 825 miles west-southwest of Honolulu, accompanied by NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine, Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman and other dignitaries. From Johnston Island, they flew aboard Marine helicopters to the communications relay ship USS Arlington, where they spent the night before helicoptering to Hornet early on splashdown day. Admiral John S. McCain, Commander in Chief of Pacific naval forces, greeted the president on Johnston Island and flew separately to Hornet to be present for the splashdown and recovery.    

Three images of Earth taken by Apollo 11 astronauts during the last few hours of their approach back to Earth (left to right) from 41,400 miles; 23,800 miles; and approximately 11,500 miles. Image Credits: NASA

As they approached their home planet, the astronauts aboard Columbia photographed the rapidly growing Earth. The Apollo 11 backup crew of James A. Lovell, Fred W. Haise and William A. Anders, as well as Chief of Flight Crew Operations Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, joined Capcom Ronald E. Evans in mission control.

Haise radioed to the crew aboard Apollo 11, “Have a good trip, and make sure you remember to come in BEF,” meaning Blunt End Forward—a humorous reminder to the crew to ensure that Columbia’s heat shield faced in the direction of travel for re-entry.

Collins replied with, “You better believe. Thank you kindly.” 

At an altitude of about 4,500 miles, Apollo 11 passed into Earth’s shadow and, 12 minutes later, the Command Module (CM) separated from the Service Module, which performed an evasive maneuver to avoid interfering with the re-entry process. Hornet was still steaming toward the splashdown point, but it had launched recovery helicopters already approaching their operational stations.

The CM turned around to point its heat shield in the direction of flight as its velocity increased to more than 24,700 mph. At an altitude of 400,000 feet, the point called Entry Interface, Apollo 11 encountered the first tendrils of Earth’s atmosphere. About four minutes of radio blackout followed as ionized gases created by the heat of re-entry surrounded the spacecraft. Aldrin filmed the entry through Columbia’s right hand window with a 16-mm camera. 


The CM’s computer used the spacecraft’s lift capability to execute a small skip maneuver to lengthen the re-entry trajectory and overfly the area of inclement weather. The astronauts experienced a peak deceleration of about 6.5 times the force of gravity. At this point, one of the deployed aircraft made visual contact with the descending capsule, still at about 65,000 feet altitude. Three minutes later, Hornet made a transient visual contact through the mostly overcast skies.

At an altitude of about 24,000 feet, the spacecraft’s apex cover was jettisoned, followed less than two seconds later by the two drogue parachutes to slow and stabilize the capsule. At 10,000 feet, the three main 83-foot diameter orange and white parachutes deployed, and Hornet established radio contact with Apollo 11 as it descended through the predawn sky. At precisely 195 hours and 18 minutes after lifting off from Florida, Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, successfully completing the first human Moon-landing mission. Hornet was still 13 miles away, but rapidly closing the distance. Recovery helicopters were either on station or rapidly approaching. 

Left: The moment Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, photographed from a U.S. Navy helicopter. Image Credit: U.S. Navy/Mitch Bucklew. Right: Columbia in Stable 2 position shortly after splashdown. Image Credit: NASA

Initially, Columbia assumed the Stable 2 position in the water, with the spacecraft’s apex pointing downward. Within a few minutes, three flotation bags inflated to right the spacecraft. Then began a carefully choreographed and intensively rehearsed process to recover the astronauts and the capsule from the ocean and transport them to Hornet. Unlike previous recoveries, Apollo 11’s was more complicated due to back-contamination prevention measures that had to be strictly adhered to.  Frogmen of the US Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) had trained aboard Hornet for weeks to precisely carry out the recovery operations. All the swimmers wore scuba gear to minimize any exposure to possible lunar microorganisms. A film of the recovery operations, narrated by one of the swimmers, provides an excellent perspective.  


 Left: President Nixon (center) with NASA Administrator Paine to his right and U.S. Navy Admiral McCain to his left watch the Apollo 11 recovery operations from the flag bridge of the USS Hornet. Right: Apollo 11 astronauts await the recovery helicopter with the decontamination officer, all wearing BIGs. Image Credit: NASA

Once the capsule righted itself, the first swimmer in the water, John M. Wolfram, attached a sea anchor to the spacecraft to stabilize it in the rough seas. He was the first person on Earth to see the astronauts inside the capsule and reported on their condition as being excellent. 

Two other swimmers, Wesley T. Chesser and Michael G. Mallory, jumped into the water, and the three of them attached a flotation collar around the capsule. A helicopter dropped the first raft into the water, which the three inflated and attached to the flotation collar. A second raft was inflated upwind from the capsule to protect the frogmen from any Moon germs.

Clarence J. “Clancy” Hatleberg, the decontamination officer, was next in the water and climbed into the second raft. A helicopter lowered the Biological Isolation Garments (BIGs) for Hatleberg and the astronauts, as well as the canisters containing decontamination solutions for the crew and capsule.

Hatleberg donned his BIG and was towed to and entered the raft attached to the capsule. His first task was to close vents on the spacecraft to prevent any air that might be contaminated from escaping into the atmosphere. The astronauts briefly opened the hatch to the capsule, and Hatleberg handed them their BIGs, which they donned inside the spacecraft. The astronauts then emerged from the capsule and climbed aboard the raft—first Armstrong, then Collins and finally Aldrin. Hatleberg had some difficulty closing the capsule’s hatch, and first Armstrong, then Collins, helped to finally secure it. Hatleberg sprayed the capsule with Betadine and wiped the astronauts down with a sodium hypochlorite solution for decontamination purposes. 

Two views of the recovery process. Left: From the recovery helicopter, the Billy Pugh net is lowered to the raft, where the three astronauts await retrieval with Clancy Hatleberg. Image Credit: U.S. Navy. Right: Approximately the same scene as seen from the water. Image Credit: U.S. Navy/John Wolfram.

The recovery helicopter retrieved the three astronauts, one by one, from the raft using a Billy Pugh net, loading first Armstrong, then Collins and finally Aldrin. NASA flight surgeon Dr. William R. Carpentier was aboard the helicopter and gave them a brief medical evaluation. The helicopter flew to the Hornet, landing on its deck 63 minutes after splashdown. From there, sailors placed it on an elevator, took it below deck, and towed it toward the reception area near the prime Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF). A second MQF was held in reserve in case problems arose with the first, or in case any of the ship’s crew was inadvertently exposed to the astronauts or spacecraft. 

The three astronauts—Collins first, followed by Armstrong, Aldrin and Carpentier—walked the 10 steps from the helicopter to the MQF amid the cheers of Hornet’s crew and assembled media. NASA engineer John K. Hirasaki was waiting inside the MQF and filmed the astronauts entering. The five of them remained inside the MQF until their arrival at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL) at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, now NASA’s Johnson Space Center, two days later.


Two views of mission control after the safe recovery and delivery to Hornet of the Apollo 11 astronauts. Image Credits: NASA

Mission control in Houston was closely monitoring the splashdown and recovery activities, with most communications with the spacecraft being handled by Hornet’s recovery team. The room was rapidly filling to capacity as managers and engineers prepared for the celebration of a mission successfully accomplished. Once the recovery team safely delivered the astronauts aboard Hornet, everyone lit cigars and waved American flags amid a cacophony of cheers. One screen displayed the words of President John F. Kennedy from his May 1961 message to Congress that committed the nation to the goal “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth,” while another showed the Apollo 11 patch with the words “Task Accomplished – July 1969.”   

Left: Apollo 11 astronauts (left to right) Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, followed by Dr. Williams Carpentier (in orange), walk from the recovery helicopter to the MQF in Hornet’s hangar bay. A portion of the backup MQF is visible behind the prime. Right: The astronauts (left to right) Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins, followed by Carpentier, enter the MQF. Image Credits: NASA

Once inside the MQF, the astronauts removed their BIGs, took showers, changed into comfortable flight suits and prepared to be welcomed by President Nixon. In a short speech, Nixon recognized the tremendous accomplishment of the Moon landing and invited the astronauts and their wives to a state dinner in Los Angeles on Aug. 13, once they were out of quarantine. Hornet’s chaplain provided a prayer, and the service ended with the playing of the National Anthem. The ceremonies over, Nixon boarded Marine One and departed Hornet. He had been onboard for three hours. 

Left: Sailors hoist Columbia aboard Hornet. Middle: Below deck, workers erected a flexible tunnel between the MQF and Columbia. Right: John Hirasaki sprays decontaminant on Columbia after retrieving the lunar samples. Image Credits: NASA

The UDT swimmers and sailors aboard Hornet hauled Columbia out of the water and towed it below to the hangar deck next to the MQF. Once Columbia was aboard, Hornet set sail for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  Workers erected a flexible plastic tunnel between the MQF and the capsule, allowing Hirasaki to leave the MQF and open the hatch to Columbia. He retrieved the two Apollo Lunar Sample Return Containers containing the Moon rocks and soil, film cassettes and spacesuits from the capsule and returned with them to the MQF without breaking the biological barrier. Hirasaki sealed the lunar samples, film cassettes and medical samples taken inside the MQF in plastic bags and transferred them outside through a transfer lock that included a decontamination wash.

Outside the MQF, NASA engineers placed these items into transport containers and loaded them aboard two separate aircraft. The first aircraft, carrying one Apollo Lunar Sample Return Container and a second package containing film, departed Hornet within a few hours of the recovery, flying to Johnston Island 180 miles away. From there, the two containers were placed aboard a C-141 cargo aircraft and flown directly to Ellington Air Force Base (AFB) near MSC in Houston, arriving there the afternoon of July 25. 

The second aircraft departed Hornet six-and-a-half hours after the first and included the second Apollo Lunar Sample Return Container, additional film, as well as the astronaut medical samples. It flew directly to Hickam AFB in Hawaii, where workers transferred the containers to another cargo plane bound for Houston. Within 48 hours of splashdown, scientists in the LRL in Houston were examining the first lunar samples and processing the film.    

Left: NASA personnel remove crew biological samples from the MQF’s transfer lock. The liquid decontamination fluid can be seen dripping from the bag. Middle: A NASA engineer documents an Apollo Lunar Sample Return Container before packing. Right: NASA personnel place an Apollo Lunar Sample Return Container into a transport container. Image Credits: NASA

Close-up of President Nixon and astronauts (left to right) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin in the MQF. Image Credit: NASA
Close-up of President Nixon and astronauts (left to right) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin in the MQF. Image Credit: NASA
Overall view of Hornet’s hangar bay, where President Richard Nixon welcomed home the Apollo 11 astronauts sealed inside the MQF. Image Credit: NASA
Overall view of Hornet’s hangar bay, where President Richard Nixon welcomed home the Apollo 11 astronauts sealed inside the MQF. Image Credit: NASA