At 195:18:35 mission time (eight days, three hours, 18 minutes, 35 seconds post launch), the Apollo 11 command module Columbia splashed down in the Pacific Ocean southwest of Hawaii. The date was July 24, 1969.
That its return to Earth was only 12 nautical miles from its recovery ship, the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, is to this day a testament to the skill of the U.S. Navy.
According to NASA, bad weather required the original splashdown point to shift 250 miles northeast. On July 23, the Hornet began sailing toward that new location, but “overcast skies made stellar navigation impossible, so Hornet used the ancient mariner’s technique of dead reckoning to arrive on time and at the proper position to recover crew and spacecraft.”
Yes, the crew and capsule of the most amazing feat in all of human history were recovered from the ocean by a ship using the same technique used by Christopher Columbus and myriad other explorers who followed — men who hundreds of years before had left the safety of their European ports to explore their own edge of the universe, the vast unknown of the Atlantic Ocean, with nothing more than a fixed position, charts and lots of math.
On board the Hornet, President Richard Nixon waited to greet Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins back to Earth, but there would be no congratulatory handshakes or slaps on the back. Instead, Nixon stood on a blue carpet next to an aluminum trailer. A window shade slid to the side and the three astronauts appeared behind the glass as the president spoke via a two-way microphone: “Neal, Buzz and Mike, I’d like you to know that I think I’m the luckiest man in the world. And I say this not only because I have the honor to be the president of the United States but particularly because I have the privilege of speaking for so many in welcoming you back to Earth.”
For the world, man’s first steps on the moon were already four days in the past, but for the crew, they were just beginning the final phase of their mission — a phase that would keep them away from their families more than twice as long (18 days) as the moon shot itself.
Though the risk was deemed small, there was still concern in 1969 about “space germs” hitching a ride back from the moon. These pathogens, if they did exist and somehow got released, could pose a serious threat to the Earthbound population. While that “better safe than sorry” atmosphere kept the crew quarantined until Aug. 11, just two days later, they were in New York City getting what was billed as the largest ticker tape parade in history.
Wanting to capitalize on the goodwill the Apollo 11 mission had generated, President Nixon pushed NASA for a world tour.
On Sept. 29, 1969, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, along with their wives and employees from NASA, Voice of America and the U.S. State Department, arrived in Mexico City, the first stop on a trip that would put them in front of leaders of nations of ethnicities and faiths as diverse as the planet itself. In a feat that would have made Phileas Fogg blush with envy, author Charles Fishman (“One Giant Leap”) notes the entourage “visited 27 cities, in 24 countries in 39 days.”
When the tour ended Nov. 5, 1969, the astronauts and their wives were guests at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where Fishman adds: “They had dinner with President Nixon and the first lady and spent their first night back as the guests of the Nixons in the White House.”
Not until dawn broke the morning of Nov. 6 would the crew of Apollo 11 at last be released to attempt at least a semblance of life outside of hotel rooms, crowds and speeches into that most important of all achievements in life — the inner peace of family and home.
Sadly, it would take less than a year after the magnificence of Apollo 11 before NASA began reprioritizing to the Skylab project and began its descent into where it is still stuck today: low Earth orbit.
On Dec. 14, 1972, Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan took the last steps on the moon and radioed back to Earth: “As we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind.”
Though the first and last men to set foot on the moon are no longer with us, their hopes and dreams have never left. It’s long past time we dust those hopes and dreams off and give future generations their own moon shot.
Besides, I’m not getting any younger, and I’d like to hear what the first woman on the moon has to say.
Geoff Caldwell lives in Joplin. He can be reached at email@example.com.