Splashdown | May 15, 2009 | Danville Express | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


Danville Express

Cover Story - May 15, 2009


Danville man details the USS Hornet recovery of the first men on the moon

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Stepping onto the moon July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong intoned: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." President Kennedy's promise to land a man on the moon had been fulfilled after a massive and far-reaching eight-year effort and at a cost of $25 billion.

In his recently released book, Danville resident Bob Fish focuses on what happened four days later when the three astronauts, Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, returned to the earth's atmosphere and splashed down into the Pacific Ocean. In another enormous operation, the astronauts were recovered by a crack Navy team - helped onto a raft, hoisted up into a helicopter, and transported to the USS Hornet. The aircraft carrier had maneuvered to be near the estimated splashdown site.

"Many thousands of Navy, Marine and Air Force personnel were involved in the recovery effort," said Fish, author of "Hornet Plus Three: The Story of the Apollo 11 Recovery."

"It becomes a very compelling story when one realizes the Department of Defense was also fighting a hot war in Vietnam and a cold war everywhere else around the world."

The USS Hornet had just returned from its third and final tour of the Vietnam War on May 13 when it was selected June 1 as the recovery ship, which gave little time for preparation.

Add to these pressures the fact that President Nixon was to be transported to the USS Hornet in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to greet the astronauts. More than 2,000 military personnel were on the scene, noted Fish, although most had duties in the ship's lower decks. And 500 million TV viewers around the world watched the president welcome the astronauts back to earth.

"Hornet Plus Three" provides insights never before available to the public, said Fish, and anyone with an interest in the 1960s era of space exploration will enjoy reading it.

The recovery also dealt with quarantine concerns; since humans had never walked on another planet there was apprehension about "moon germs," Fish noted.

"Scientists were concerned that a lunar pathogen could infect the earth's biosphere and cause major damage to some segment," he said, "so the Hornet team had to follow a strict recovery protocol and had various 'special contingency orders' in case of a quarantine break."

After the space capsule splashed down, the astronauts were met by decontamination swimmer Lt. Clancy Hatleberg, who wore a biological isolation garment (BIG). He tossed three BIGs in to the astronauts, then quickly closed the hatch. Zipped up from head to toe, the astronauts climbed out onto the recovery raft where Hatleberg made sure that the suits were not venting into the earth's atmosphere and that the astronauts could breathe properly.

"My main concern was with the high sea-state - these were the worst conditions we had worked in," Hatleberg recalled for Fish.

While washing the astronauts with disinfecting solution, Hatleberg was knocked flat by a wave that collapsed over the raft. "Before I got up, I figured I'd be the only one left in the raft and have to swim over the horizon to Australia as per Dr. Stullken's prior instructions when he told me failure was not an option."

"The astronauts were washed down with sodium hypochlorite," noted Fish. "That's bleach!"

Once cleansed, the astronauts were lifted up to a helicopter and transported to the nearby Hornet, where they walked directly to the specially designed mobile quarantine facility, which resembled an Airstream trailer. From inside they listened to Nixon's speech and watched the ceremony.

Two-and-a-half days later, the Hornet sailed into Pearl Harbor. The mobile quarantine facility was transported to a giant cargo aircraft, which flew it to Houston, where the astronauts completed their final two weeks of quarantine in the NASA Lunar Receiving Laboratory. The moon rocks were treated with equal caution.

"They never did find moon germs on Apollo 11 or Apollo 12," said Fish. The quarantine process was dropped after the Apollo 14 mission in 1971.

Fish has been a trustee and Apollo curator for the USS Hornet Museum since 2000. He established a display on the main deck with footprints showing where the astronauts took their first steps after walking on the moon. The prints lead into a mobile quarantine facility identical to the one used in 1969.

Nearby are an Apollo Space Capsule and the helicopter from the 1995 movie "Apollo 13," the same type that recovered the Apollo 11 and 12 astronauts. A Splashdown Exhibit has memorabilia and photos from the Apollo 11 and 12 moon missions.

"I put together a docent guide to explain the exhibit," said Fish. Then teachers began to request the information to prepare students in advance of their visit to the Hornet.

As Fish gathered more and more material he began to realize he had enough for a book. If he wrote a book, he also knew, he could interview everyone he could find who was involved in the recovery mission, an endeavor that greatly appealed to him.

"I spent eight years researching the info, collecting photos and interviewing participants, so it contains a lot of previously unpublished information," said Fish. "So much so, that Neil Armstrong wrote the initial cover blurb and Dick Gordon wrote the Foreword."

In the process, Fish spent time with Carl Seiberlich, who was captain of the USS Hornet when it was called from duty to accommodate the Apollo 11 recovery team.

"We met in a restaurant," recalled Fish. Seiberlich was 78 at the time. "I knew him immediately."

That first meeting lasted several hours, and over the next few months Seiberlich continued to provide snippets of information. "He was my guiding light," said Fish. Seiberlich died two years ago.

Seiberlich was also friends with Neil Armstrong, whose words are in the book.

"We were convinced it had been a perfect recovery," Armstrong wrote to Fish in an e-mail. "As a matter of fact, I didn't remember that the return to Pearl Harbor was two-and-a-half days. …. We had a great deal of work to do getting our thoughts recorded as preparation for all the post-flight debriefings for which we were obligated."

He called the Houston quarantine a "necessary nuisance" but said it gave the crew valuable time to complete paperwork and interact with the other crews, systems specialists, etc.

"In view of the intense public interest in the flight, that would have been very difficult without the quarantine requirement," Armstrong wrote.

The book includes interesting asides gleaned from Fish's interviews with everyone from the official photographer to the recovery pilot to astronauts. Appendix A has personal recollections from seven participants.

"I wanted to give the guys a chance to talk," said Fish. "These are their words. I wanted to give insight into what an 18-20-year-old was thinking when the eyes of the world were on him."

Navy photographer Milt Putnam recalls jumping out of the helicopter - still strapped into his safety belt. "I was hanging there with my feet only an inch or so above the deck for what seemed an eternity," he said.

Regarding the cramped quarters of the quarantine facility, Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell noted: "For three astronauts who had just spent eight days weightlessly bumping around each other in the Apollo CM, with no privacy (nor gravity) for eating, sleeping or personal hygiene activities, it seemed like a palace."

The manned space flights were undertaken jointly by NASA and the Department of Defense, which still has much of the information classified, Fish said. This relationship is spelled out in the book. The Air Force played a part in tracking the launches and the recoveries. The Navy helped with tracking plus rigorously trained recovery teams and modified recovery vessels.

"The only reason we went to the moon is because of the Cold War," stated Fish. "We're just catching up on technology now. We spent $25 billion on 46 pounds of moon rocks." The next Apollo landing cost another $17 billion, he noted.

Fish puts the trip to the moon in historical perspective, saying it will be viewed as a high point in "the American experiment."

"One thing the United States will be remembered for is people leaving the planet earth," he said. "The greatest scientific achievement in the history of mankind was putting a man on the moon. And the Hornet was part of it."

He also wrote the book for future generations to remember the heady days of moon landings and to perhaps inspire others to pursue science and technology. "There may be some kid in Danville right now …," he mused.

The book includes a hand-drawn navigation chart used to calculate the point of splashdown. Appendix C has key speeches, including one written by William Safire that President Nixon would have delivered in case of disaster.

Richard Gordon, veteran of the Gemini 11 and Apollo 12 missions, supplied insight into the space program and wrote the foreword to the book.

"As the first in-depth book written on 'spacecraft recovery' it is likely to become a keystone of the legacy for all Navy and NASA personnel who executed these missions," he wrote, "and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it. In the vernacular of the Naval Services: Well done, Bob Fish."

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