Moon Men Return: USS Hornet and the Recovery of the Apollo 11 Astronauts – Scott Carmichael

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51GNJLwUtTLAs part of my research into exactly how an Essex-class carrier operated when recovering an Apollo command module, I picked up this book direct from the U.S. Naval Institute about the experience of the USS Hornet (CVā€“12) which recovered the Apollo 11 astronauts in July 1969.

There good things and bad things about this book. Under the category of "inexplicable bad things" why in the world would you put a picture on the cover of the Hornet in the 1950s in a completely different configuration than when it recovered Apollo 11?  It is completely unrecognizable as the same ship.

Similarly, the book begins with a number of false notes, beginning with the overwrought praise of the Hornet's wartime record as making it a peculiarly appropriate choice as the recovery ship. Yes, the Hornet had an exemplary wartime record, but it was not uniquely appropriate that it was selected to recover Apollo 11. Once you get over that schmaltz, which is probably unavoidable given that the author spent years interviewing former crewmembers and clearly adopted their completely understandable pride in their ship, there are repeated instances, especially early in the book where some editing would've been in order, because the author frequently says things about persons two or three times, with each sentence having its complement of adjectives. It isn't as bad as reading '40's fiction, but it's close.

There are also some odd statements, such as the reference to an officer having assigned a young Lieut. John F. Kennedy to command of U.S. PT boats in the Pacific. It is technically correct that he assigned Kennedy to command a couple of boats ā€“ but the sentence could easily be read as that he assigned Kennedy to command of all U.S. PT boats in the Pacific, which would not be correct. Neil Armstrong is similarly called out for his positive qualities in "spaceflights " prior to his assignment to Apollo 11  But Armstrong only had one spaceflight before Apollo 11.

Either the writing got better or I stopped noticing, because before long the book had me very interested in the subject matter. It explained how the Hornet was run, and how it absorbed the new task of recovering the astronauts. It went into detail about the equipment used and how the crew was trained in the recovery, including a great deal of detail about the Navy and NASA personnel that went from ship to ship ensuring that the recovery would be done correctly. The sections dealing with how the ship managed to visit of President Nixon, who arrived on the Hornet to watch the recovery, but spent only three hours on the ship, were very interesting as well.

The point at which I realized that this book was not going to be a direct read on the Essex's recovery of Apollo 7 the previous October was when it began discussing the extreme fear at the time that the astronauts would bring back "moon germs" which would infect Earth and kill us all. Accordingly, detailed procedures were developed and followed during the recovery to limit as much as possible the extent to which the returning astronauts could contaminate the Hornet during the recovery process.

One thing this book did not do, which I appreciated, was focus on the popular obsession with Apollo 11 that was present in society at large at the time of the mission. It certainly mentions it in numerous places, but it avoids going into it in so much detail that a regular Apollo reader would get bored.

All in all, although I wish the book had been edited a little better, it was a very interesting story and literally kept me up at night.

 

About Post Author

Michael C. Smith

Marshall, Texas lawyer. I post on things that attract my interest while puttering in my study. Mostly family, books, home, history, World War II and scale modeling.
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