This article was written by William Cracraft and first published in 1998 in an Oakland Tribune special adverstising supplement celebrating the opening of the Aircraft Carrier Hornet Museum.
One of the Hornet’s greatest claims to fame is the flawless recovery of U.S. astronauts from the Apollo 11 and 12 moon missions. To celebrate those moments in her history, the Hornet has an extensive display of moon and spacecraft material including videos and photographs and, with luck, will acquire a reproduction of the Airstream quarantine trailer the astronauts lived in on board the Hornet immediately after their return.
On July 24, 1969, with President Richard Nixon on board, the Hornet was in position to recover the first visitors to the moon as they plunged through the atmosphere in their spacecraft, Columbia. In the final hours, the Hornet had had to steam 580 kilometers further to avoid bad weather, but all was in readiness.
The first person to see the flaring spacecraft was Nixon, posted by a: repeater compass on the portside if the island. “’There it is,” he cried,’ pointing high in the sky,” said Bob Rogers, director of communication for the Aircraft Carrier Hornet Foundation.
After eight days in space, the Columbia splashed down and tipped on its nose, but on-board air bags inflated to right the craft. Frogmen swarmed over the spacecraft and a swimmer from the Hornet threw the emerging astronauts biological isolation garments.
One of the Navy frogmen, who had glued colored bathtub daisies to his black wetsuit so his family would recognize him on television, took advantage of the break while the astronauts were being flown to the Hornet to strip a quantity of the anodized Mylar heat shield from the Columbia.
“He was putting it in his wetsuit, he had it under his armpits and everywhere. What he didn’t realized that there were very powerful chemicals on it. He got this rash and thought he had a moon rash,” said Rogers.
The astronauts climbed into a rubber boat, and the whole contingent – astronauts, frogmen and swimmers scrubbed each other down with iodine solution. As the men helicoptered to the Hornet, the spacecraft was also scrubbed down.
The recovery helicopter landed searchers on the port elevator on the Hornet and was lowered to Hangar Deck Three, where it was towed inside.
The three astronauts walked the last few steps, now permanently painted on the Hornet’s deck, to their Airstream quarantine trailer, home for the next three weeks. “We were concerned about micro-organisms and bacteria coming back from the moon,” said Rogers.
As the astronauts showered and prepared to meet the president, the doctor examining them showed them footage of their journey as seen on television.
“They knew what they had done was pretty spectacular in human history, but they had no idea what the impact was here on earth, until they saw Walter Cronkite, speechless, with tears running down his face,” said Rogers.
The moon rocks were given a cursory examination and cultures were taken to test for foreign bacteria. The rocks were packaged in two containers and flown out on separate aircraft in case of a crash.
For the next three weeks the astronauts would play cards, practice the ukulele and relate their experiences to NASA researchers. The Heathkit Company used to send catalogues up with the astronauts on the way to the moon so they could decide what to build while in isolation and order the parts, said Rogers.
In addition to official government artifacts, the Hornet has acquired a few special items, including some of those moon rocks. The Hornet also has a unique home video taken from one of the Apollo 11 recovery helicopters whose pilot retired to Alameda.
Four months later, after the Apollo 11 recovery, the Hornet pulled a repeat performance in a letter-perfect recovery of the all-Navy crew of Apollo 12, the second Moon mission 12. Selected to recover the Apollo 13 astronauts, the ill-fated Moon mission was delayed and the Hornet was deactivated in the meantime.