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Apollo, day by day

Students of Apollo have probably seen the pictures of Neil, Buzz, and Mike wearing biohazard containment suits and walking toward the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF), a modified Airstream trailer converted into an isolation chamber to protect the rest of us Earthlings from possible “lunar pathogens.” No lunar pathogens were ever discovered, no Andromeda Strain ever set loose upon the world, and we didn’t all die, thank goodness. But what you most likely did not realize was that after they exited their helicopter (the famed “Helo 66”), the aircraft was sealed up, its hatches and doors covered over with tape, and it was pumped full of formaldehyde gas—just in case.

You can learn this and other little known details of the Apollo 11 recovery from an unexpected source: a calendar produced by the USS Hornet Museum titled “USS Hornet CVS-12 Apollo 11 Recovery.” You can order it online now.

The calendar contains a number of photos that you have never seen before, such as the MQF being onloaded and later offloaded from the ship—with the astronauts inside—as well as training exercises and other operations.

The Hornet was the recovery ship for both the Apollo 11 and 12 missions. Upon replacing her namesake which was sunk in October 1942 during the Battle of Santa Cruz Island, the ship had a distinguished service record in the Second World War, skipped Korea, and served throughout most of the 1950s. But by the late 1960s she was nearing the end of her career. Unable to launch the Navy’s heavier attack jets, she was relegated to anti-submarine service, carrying sub-hunting aircraft and helicopters like the venerable Sikorsky Sea King. A helicopter squadron given the Apollo recovery task, HS-4, was assigned to the Hornet. Of the squadron’s helos, one of them, Helo 66, stood out because it was very stable in a hover—quite useful when you’re trying to pluck fragile astronauts from the water (see “The last flight of Helo 66” and “Helo 66 revisited”, The Space Review, June 25 and July 9, 2007). When the Apollo 11 mission was launched, the Hornet set to sea to participate in the recovery.

The calendar is filled with photos pertaining to the recovery effort, before, during, and after. Because Apollo 11 was recovered so early in the morning, there are not really any good photos of the actual recovery of the crew. But the calendar contains a number of photos that you have never seen before, such as the MQF being onloaded and later offloaded from the ship—with the astronauts inside—as well as training exercises and other operations. The dates are rather sparse, listing only major American holidays and the recovery dates for Apollos 11 and 12. Considering the subject matter, it would have been nice to have all of the Apollo launch and recovery dates. But if you have a pen, you can fill these in yourself, along with other important information like your dog’s birthday.

The Hornet was retired a few years after the Apollo recoveries. She then spent over two decades slowly rusting in the mothball fleet before she was rescued in the mid-nineties and turned into a museum. Today she is open to the public seven days a week at the former Alameda Naval Air Station. She’s a little hard to find, but worth the trip.

As some wit once said “Time is Nature’s way of making sure everything doesn’t happen all at once.” Calendars valiantly contribute to that important task. It’s the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11. You need a calendar. New Year’s is almost here. Go buy this one.


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ISPCS 2015