Apollo 11 Anniversary Has Island City Connection

From the Alameda Sun collection    A copy of the San Francisco Chronicle from exactly 50 years ago today. The caption under the photo reads: “Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon, aboard the aircraft carrier Hornet, July 24, 1969.” Note the button on Armstrong’s lapel celebrating that the three Apollo 11 astronauts had come aboard safely

This week, USS Hornet (CV 12) marked the 50th anniversary of its participation in the Apollo 11 mission as the “prime recovery ship.” According to Robert Pearlman’s www.collectspace.com, the Navy selected USS Hornet on June 1, 1969, for the important role of retrieving lunar astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edward Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin from the Pacific Ocean after the trio splashed down on July 24.  

USS Hornet received its orders while moored at Long Beach Naval Base. The Navy stationed the carrier there on May 13, 1969, after it returned from service off the waters of Japan. From mid-June to mid-July 1969, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Navy prepared USS Hornet for deployment to the Apollo 11 target area. 

According to NASA’s Apollo 11 Mission Support, this included organizing the mission’s air support: four Navy Sea King helicopters, three E-1B aircraft, three Apollo range instrumentation aircraft and two HC-130 rescue aircraft from Hickam Air Force Base.

“The hard work spilled over onto the ship, where the more than 2,000 personnel made sure the Hornet was in tip-top shape for the arrival of President Richard Nixon,” Larry Zetterberg told the Salem (Ore.) Statesman Journal. 

NASA originally planned for the astronauts to splash down near Johnston Island, about 800 miles from Hawaii. However, the night before splashdown, a storm rolled in and the recovery site was moved 250 miles.

“The Hornet had to hustle to get into position, and overcast skies made navigation a challenge when the ship’s automatic positioning system went down,” Zetterberg, who was aboard Air Boss, one of the E-1B planes, told the Statesman Journal. 

Both the Hornet and re-entry vessel Columbia were in position in the early morning hours of July 24, 1969. “Dawn was just breaking when USS Hornet spotted the Columbia entering some clouds nine minutes before splashdown,” Hamish Lindsay wrote in Tracking Apollo to the Moon. 

When Columbia came into view again, the spacecraft with its precious cargo was “swinging gently under its three parachutes,” Lindsay wrote. Trouble arose when the spacecraft landed upside down with the astronauts hanging head down. It took the floatation bags almost eight minutes to flip Columbia over allowing access to the astronauts.

By then, four helicopters from USS Hornet had almost reached the spacecraft. The first two carried swimmers and recovery equipment. The third had a photo platform, while the fourth helicopter carried the decontamination swimmer and the flight surgeon. This team brought the astronauts safely aboard USS Hornet. On Aug. 1, 1969, the carrier returned to Long Beach flying a banner that read “Hornet Plus 3.”