50th Anniversary Saturday

Former naval commander recalls Apollo 11

By Beth A. Birmingham | Jul 15, 2019
Photo by: Beth A. Birmingham Bill Wasson, former Navy commander, points to a photograph he took of Navy divers retrieving Apollo 11's Lunar Module Eagle July 24, 1969.

Thomaston — For one local resident, the phrase "The eagle has landed" is more than just a metaphor.

The phrase was, in fact, coined when Apollo 11's Lunar Module Eagle touched down on the moon July 20, 1969.

Now as NASA prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of man's first successful walk on the moon, Former Navy lieutenant commander and current Code Enforcement Officer Bill Wasson shared some of his experience aboard the Apollo 11 recovery ship.

Wasson, who was 27 at the time, was in charge of operations on the bridge of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet (CVS-12), which had just returned from a nine-month Vietnam deployment to the western Pacific when it was selected for the Apollo 11 duty.

As officer of the deck, Wasson served as the captain's direct representative, giving speed and course commands to those steering the ship and operating the throttles. "It's a pretty highly qualified position, especially on large ships like that," he said.

"The technical aspect of operating the ship -- which was my primary job -- wasn’t all that different that day," Wasson recalled June 27. "I was concentrating on getting everything right, with the president arriving aboard, as well as other dignitaries."

That president was Richard M. Nixon, who, along with Adm. John McCain Jr. and others, greeted astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin after they made history by completing a challenge set forth by former President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to be the first to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.

NASA's Apollo program resulted in American astronauts making a total of 11 spaceflights and walking on the moon. The first four flights tested the equipment used in the program, while six of the other seven flights landed on the moon.

A total of 12 astronauts walked on the moon and conducted scientific research, studying the lunar surface, collecting moon rocks, and extensively photographing everything. In fact, an astronaut on Apollo 8 had said, "We came up to discover the moon, but what was discovered was the Earth."

The Hornet, an anti-submarine aircraft carrier, was a 872-foot vessel with 19 floors that weighed 44,000 tons, and could reach speeds of 33 knots, or 38 miles per hour. Its normal mission was to carry two helicopter squadrons and a fixed-wing squadron for search-and-rescue operations, as well as to monitor Chinese and Russian submarines in the Tonkin Gulf and South China Sea.

Wasson said that for the weeks leading up to Apollo 11's reentry into the Earth's atmosphere, the crew of the U.S.S. Hornet conducted rigorous simulated recovery exercises, during which Navy Seal divers jumped from helicopters into the Pacific Ocean and swam to the nearby training capsule (called a boilerplate), where they attached flotation collars to the dummy spacecraft, and dummy astronauts were hoisted into helicopters time after time.

Training was conducted under every possible sea condition and two backup teams were even trained in the event of sickness or casualty.

Wasson said the training sessions lasted longer than 12 hours, but the actual recovery was done in approximately four hours.

As noted in the deck log in Wasson's own handwriting, the splashdown of Apollo 11 occurred in the Pacific Ocean at 5:50 a.m. about 900 miles west of Hawaii July 24, 1969.

"5:41 the Apollo 11 command module is sighted, bearing 240 degrees ... making its re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere. Commenced maneuvering on various courses at various speeds while approaching the estimated splash-down position," the log notes, continuing, "6:58 recovered 2 helos astronauts, N.A. Armstrong, LCol. M. Collins USAF, and Col E.E. Aldrin Jr. USAF."

One account noted, "The command module, traveling over 25,000 mph, entered the Earth's atmosphere and left a trail of flames nearly 200 miles in length as it slowed for its splashdown."

Wasson said the bottom half of the Eagle was completely singed, and could be seen as a crane lifted the capsule and rolled it onto the deck. It had been covered in a gold foil material to help with reflection of light, he said, and admitted that he was able to get a strip of it to add to his collection of memorabilia.

After rock samples were removed from the Eagle, the capsule was placed next to the Mobile Quarantine Facility, where the astronauts were contained before being flown to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, where they were quarantined.

Some of the moon rock samples were packaged and retrieved with a special apparatus from the flight deck by an Air Force cargo plane, and were taken to a base in Hawaii, Wasson said.

To this day, the U.S.S. Hornet is preserved as a museum in Alameda, Calif. Its main deck is said to be covered with historic warplanes and space artifacts, including an Apollo command module and Mobile Quarantine Facility from subsequent missions. The first footsteps the Apollo 11 crew took on Earth after walking on the moon are traced on the deck.

The Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia is in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

As noted in a book filled with photographs documenting the Apollo 11 mission, the astronauts' "presence aboard Hornet represented the fulfillment not only of years of research and training, but moreover of Hornet's motto -- 'Hornet Plus Three' -- Captain Seiberlich's pledge that Hornet would return safely, carrying the three astronauts."

"The Navy and the other armed forces are always out there doing whatever needs to be done," Wasson said, adding taht he loved his time in the Navy and would do it all again in a heartbeat. He will travel to California to visit aboard the Hornet for the anniversary.

As an aside, according to the website Wikiquote and other sources, when Armstrong first set foot on the moon and made his proclamation to the world of the successful venture, he declared, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." His actual prepared speech was "That's one small step for a man," however, the "a" was left out in his excitement.

Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at bbirmingham@villagesoup.com.

Retired naval commander recalls Apollo 11 recovery
Navy Seals secure a flotation collar around the Eagle after its splashdown in the ocean. (Courtesy of: Bill Wasson)
Divers jump from helicopters. (Courtesy of: Bill Wasson)
President Richard Nixon waves goodbye from the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet (CVS-12). (Courtesy of: Bill Wasson)
The Mobile Quarantine Facility is where the astronauts were contained before being flown to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. (Courtesy of: Bill Wasson)
A crane is used to move the Eagle on board the flight deck of the Hornet. (Courtesy of: Bill Wasson)
Wrapped in gold foil material, the singed Eagle rests beside the Mobile Quarantine Facility. (Courtesy of: Bill Wasson)
Admiral John McCain Jr. arrives aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet in July 1969. (Courtesy of: Bill Wasson)
Officer of the Deck Bill Wasson, second from left, served as the captain's direct representative on the bridge of the Hornet. (Courtesy of: Bill Wasson)
Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin are greeted by President Richard M. Nixon from outside the Mobile Quarantine Facility aboard the Hornet. (Source: U.S.S. Hornet Apollo 11 Recovery Mission)
Commander Neil Armstrong places a United States flag in the ground on the moon. (Source: U.S.S. Hornet Apollo 11 Recovery Mission)
A copy of the Deck Log noting the events of recovering the Eagle -- in Commander Bill Wasson's handwriting. (Courtesy of: Bill Wasson)
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