Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small step for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”
— Charles Conrad, Jr. (first on the moon from Apollo 12)
There were millions of words being said around the world that marked the fortieth anniversary in 2009 of man’s first setting foot on the moon in 1969. A lot of those revolve around “Where were you when…? And I might have been there with a front-row seat for the astronauts return to earth, as I was stationed at the time aboard the U.S.S. Hornet, the designated recovery ship for Apollo 11.
Instead, I was at the Seal Beach, California, Naval Weapons Station, so I missed being there by >that< much.
The Hornet didn’t need a full complement of ships’ personnel to take care of the recovery — especially not weapons specialist petty officers like myself. So many of us were sent to training classes or other temporary duty stations. I got the Seal Beach Weapons Station, where I brushed up on my skills and took it easy for the period of time that it took for the Hornet to take care of its business recovering Apollo 11.
I recall that the Marine detachment — tasked with guarding the station — cooked up a special meal for all of us and we crowded around TV’s to watch and cheer as Neil took that first step. It was a truly incredible accomplishment, reflective of what can be accomplished when vision and commitment come together, especially in light of the turmoil going on both domestically and in Viet Nam at the time.
When the Hornet got back with its prize, I re-joined it and was aboard for the flight recovery of Apollo 12 later that year.
It was only the second time men had left Earth to land on the moon, and that the mission almost ended prematurely with an aborted launch after lightning struck the Saturn V launch vehicle on launch is now nearly forgotten. Fortunately, no serious damage was done and they completed their lunar mission and return successfully (interestingly, NASA would never dare launch the Space Shuttle in weather such as Apollo 12 flew through).
It is hard to describe the impression that it made upon me to be there for the recovery of their capsule in the Pacific. Perhaps just being a member of the enthralled world-wide audience was enough. It is certainly something I’ll never forget.
Astronaut Alan Bean, the Lunar Module pilot for Apollo 12 and the fourth man to set foot on the moon (and a very good artist as well), has said that the biggest message he drew from the Apollo experience in general, and from “In the Shadow of the Moon” in particular, was that people could achieve impossible dreams under the right conditions: “That is something,” Bean said, “a message that needs to be said on a daily basis to kids. … The 400,000 people that worked on Apollo … are the luckiest people around, because they got a chance in their lifetime to work on an impossible dream. Most people never get the chance.”
Nothing happens unless first a dream.”
— Carl Sandburg