The Apollo 11 mission, launched in 1969, marked the first time humans set foot on the Moon, with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin making historic lunar landings.

Upon their return to Earth, the capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, where the USS Hornet, an Essex-class aircraft carrier, played a pivotal role in the recovery operations.

This seamless collaboration between space exploration and naval precision underscored humanity’s ability to push boundaries while ensuring the safety and well-being of its pioneers.

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USS Hornet

The USS Hornet, bearing the hull designation CV-12, is an illustrious representative of the Essex-class aircraft carriers, a series of vessels known for their strength, versatility, and profound impact during World War II. Commissioned in 1943, at the peak of the war, the Hornet was swiftly recognized as a pivotal asset within the U.S. naval fleet.

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Distinguished by its impressive size and advanced capabilities, the Hornet boasted a flight deck that sprawled over 820 feet in length, accommodating a vast array of aircraft that could be launched and retrieved with remarkable efficiency. This made the ship a formidable force in aerial combat and strategic bombings, turning the tide in several key naval battles.

USS Hornet pictured in the Pacific Ocean in 1969.

The Hornet’s baptism by fire came during the Pacific campaigns of World War II. The ship displayed remarkable resilience and prowess, playing a decisive role in critical battles such as the Marianas Turkey Shoot during the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Throughout the war, the Hornet was not just an instrument of combat but a symbol of American determination and technological advancement.

Post-WWII, the Hornet underwent several modifications, adapting to the changing demands of naval warfare and technology. Its capacity to evolve and serve in diverse roles, from direct combat to support missions, underscored the carrier’s adaptability, setting the stage for its involvement in one of the most iconic events of the 20th century: the Apollo 11 recovery mission.

The Apollo 11 Mission

Apollo 11 stands out as one of the most iconic undertakings in the annals of human exploration. Embarking on this mission in 1969, NASA aimed not only to achieve a crewed lunar landing but to bring astronauts safely back to Earth — a daunting task that encapsulated the height of human ambition and technological prowess of its era.

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The crew chosen for this historic journey were Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, each bringing unique expertise and experience. While Aldrin and Armstrong were designated to descend to the lunar surface, Collins, often dubbed the “forgotten astronaut”, had the critical role of piloting the command module in lunar orbit, ensuring the safe return of his comrades.

The world watched with collective anticipation on July 16, 1969, when the Saturn V rocket, the most powerful rocket ever built, lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Its roar symbolized the culmination of years of preparation, innovation, and the undying human spirit to explore the unknown.

USS Hornet prepares to retrieve the Apollo 11 space capsule.

After achieving orbit around the Earth, the Apollo 11 spacecraft was set on a trajectory towards the Moon. Once in lunar orbit, the Lunar Module, aptly named “Eagle”, separated from the command module and began its descent.

On July 20, in a moment that resonated across the globe, Armstrong announced: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Hours later, Armstrong descended the module’s ladder and, with the famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”, became the first human to tread on the lunar surface.

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Aldrin soon joined Armstrong, and the two astronauts spent over 21 hours on the Moon, conducting experiments, collecting samples, and capturing the imagination of millions. Their success was not without challenges, including navigating the Moon’s unfamiliar terrain and ensuring that the Lunar Module could effectively launch from the Moon’s surface and dock with the command module in lunar orbit.

The return journey to Earth was as intricate as the voyage out. The spacecraft had to exit lunar orbit, survive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, and splash down safely in the Pacific Ocean. This final phase brought the USS Hornet into the spotlight, turning the aircraft carrier into an integral part of this historic odyssey.

Preparing The USS Hornet

To equip the USS Hornet for its unique role in the Apollo 11 mission, several modifications and additions were necessary. Foremost among these was the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF), a testament to the depth of planning NASA and the U.S. Navy embarked upon. This specially-designed containment unit, reminiscent of an Airstream trailer, was installed onboard the ship. Given the unknowns of lunar exploration, there were genuine concerns about potential “lunar pathogens” or contaminants the astronauts might bring back with them.

The MQF was equipped to isolate the astronauts from the external environment, ensuring that, in the event of any contamination, it would remain contained. Within this facility, the astronauts could be observed, undergo medical checks, and comfortably live for several days.

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In addition to preparing the ship for potential biohazards, the retrieval operation required aerial precision. The “Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Four” was designated for the mission, a testament to their expertise and the trust placed in their abilities.

The Apollo 11 capsule begins to be hoisted aboard the USS Hornet.

These helicopters were not just tasked with the initial spotting and location of the returning space capsule but played a more hands-on role in the recovery process. Their rotors, controls, and lifting capacities were checked and re-checked, ensuring that any mid-air operations, particularly in potentially adverse weather conditions, could be conducted without a hitch.

The crew onboard the USS Hornet, including divers trained for the recovery, underwent intensive training sessions. These divers, often referred to as “frogmen”, had the responsibility of jumping into the ocean, reaching the capsule, and ensuring it was stabilized with flotation devices. They were trained for various contingencies, including the unlikely event that the capsule might be sinking or compromised in some way. Each frogman was equipped with specialized gear, including underwater communication devices and tools to aid in the safe extraction of the astronauts from their capsule.

The Recovery

As the Apollo 11 capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on July 24, 1969, it faced the fierce forces of re-entry heat and speed. Safely designed with an ablative heat shield, the capsule managed the fiery descent, eventually deploying parachutes to slow its descent further. It splashed down about 900 miles southwest of Hawaii, greeted by the vastness of the ocean and the immense anticipation of the world.

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Within moments, the USS Hornet dispatched its prepared helicopters, their rotors slicing the air, emblematic of the urgency and precision of the moment. Painted prominently with the recognizable recovery symbol, these aircraft swiftly located the capsule, hovering over it like guardian angels ensuring its safety.

The Apollo 11 capsule is lowered onto the deck of the Hornet. Note the flotation ring attached by the divers.

The next phase was both crucial and sensitive. Navy divers, or “frogmen”, plunged into the waters, battling waves and currents to reach the bobbing capsule. Their training and rehearsals were now being put to the ultimate test. With precision, they affixed a flotation collar around the Apollo 11 capsule. This acted as a stabilizing buoy, ensuring that the capsule remained afloat and upright, reducing the risk of water ingress which could pose a threat to both the integrity of the capsule and the safety of its occupants.

The divers then proceeded with another layer of precaution. Recognizing the concerns about potential lunar contaminants, they passed biological isolation garments to the astronauts through the capsule’s hatch. Once donned, these garments would act as a barrier, ensuring that, if any lunar pathogens existed, they would remain contained, safeguarding both the rescue team and the larger environment.

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With the astronauts safely garbed, the next phase commenced. One by one, they were hoisted from the capsule into the recovery helicopter, their first steps back on Earth, albeit on a moving, airborne platform. The world watched, hearts in throats, as each astronaut was safely retrieved, their lunar odyssey now complete.

President Nixon greets the astronauts in the quarantine module.

Upon their return to the USS Hornet, they were immediately ushered into the Mobile Quarantine Facility. Here, in isolation but comfort, they would spend the subsequent 65 hours, undergoing medical checks and beginning their debriefings.

As President Richard Nixon, who was onboard the USS Hornet to personally welcome the astronauts back, aptly remarked, “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation.” The triumphant return of the Apollo 11 astronauts, aided by the USS Hornet, was not just a victory for the United States, but for all of mankind.