The out-of-this-world drama didn’t end when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon and then, with many fingers crossed, successfully rocketed back to the Apollo 11 command module to rejoin Michael Collins.
NASA still had to get the three astronauts safely back to Earth — and the waters off Hawaii and Pearl Harbor and Hickam Air Force Base provided the welcome home.
Fifty years ago today their cone-shaped spacecraft hit the atmosphere at 25,000 mph, creating a fireball that was visible to the crew of the waiting recovery aircraft carrier USS Hornet stationed about 900 miles southwest of Hawaii.
“It was like a shooting star when it come out of the sky,” recalled Vance Hege, who was a 20-year-old Marine on the Hornet 13 miles from the splashdown site.
Reentry temperatures reached 5,000 degrees, with a double sonic boom adding to the fireworks. Three huge parachutes eventually slowed the descent to the sea.
What followed was the successful retrieval of the moon-men, a less than perfect effort to guard against would-be alien germs, a visit by President Richard Nixon and a paradelike trip from Pearl Harbor to Hickam with the astronauts ensconced in a camperlike “mobile quarantine facility.”
Some 25,000 people watched on base July 26, 1969, as the astronauts made the 3-mile trip to a waiting C-141 Starlifter at Hickam for the flight to Houston.
“It looked like a Kamehameha Day parade — and that was just to see the trailer,” said state Archivist Adam Jansen.
The astronauts were only able to look out a closed window on the sealed camper as cheering and flag-waving spectators lined the route “just to see the trailer that the astronauts were in — it was just that monumental of an occasion,” Jansen said.
A 12-year-old boy ran all three miles alongside the quarantine unit, which was on a flatbed truck, “so he could keep his eye on his heroes,” the Sunday Star-Bulletin and Advertiser reported.
Gov. John A. Burns told the astronauts through a microphone system that Hawaii was “immensely proud” to be the first state to welcome the trio back from the moon.
“We would just like to thank you for being here,” Armstrong said from inside the unit. “This is perhaps the warmest welcome that any man or group of men have ever witnessed.”
“This is not just three people, not just government and industry,” Collins said. “It was all of you — all of mankind had a role in what we were able to accomplish.”
He also jokingly apologized for getting “delivered to you in a box.”
“We have seen some amazing sights, but I’ve not seen anything half as beautiful as the island of Oahu this morning,” Collins added.
Hege, now a 70-year-old Columbus, Ind., resident, remembers the Navy “had helicopters all around” the command module after it splashed down in the Pacific.
The National Academy of Sciences was concerned about possible lunar pathogens, and a lot of planning went into containment from the moment Navy divers arrived at the capsule — which contained 47.5 pounds of collected moon rocks and dust.
After Underwater Demolition Team 11 swimmers attached an inflatable collar to stabilize the spacecraft, one briefly opened the hatch and threw in three sets of “biological isolation garments.”
The newly suited astronauts climbed into a raft and were doused with sodium hypochlorite, according to the Navy.
“This part of the process did not go very well,” a Navy report said. “The decontamination sprayers jammed in the open position, which meant that much of the decontamination solution spilled into the sea, into the rafts and onto the floating collar of the command module.”
The men were transferred by helicopter to the Hornet and went immediately into the mobile quarantine facility. After changing again, they were greeted by Nixon through the camper’s window.
Hege was assigned to guard the sequestered astronauts. He recalled that they walked on rice paper from the helicopter to the camper. The walkway was then rolled up and put into a sealed container.
“They were very, very concerned about if they brought back any infectious diseases,” he said in a phone interview.
The capsule, which was brought into the hangar deck, was coated with some type of gold material, he recalled. After the splashdown the gold bubbled and started peeling.
“Well, one of the Navy guys told us Marines it was worth a lot of money — this gold, whatever it was,” Hege said. “And these Navy guys were grabbing hunks of whatever they could. So we being hard-charging Marines, we did a little grabbing ourselves.”
If the astronauts did bring a virus back, “the entire Hawaiian Islands would have been wiped out, because a lot of that gold that was on the capsule got sold in Honolulu,” he said.
There were no biological concerns — but moon dust did have a smell. By Apollo 15, quarantine had been eliminated.
NASA engineer John Hirasaki spent three weeks in quarantine with the Apollo 11 astronauts. Before he went in he opened the spacecraft hatch to inspect the interior and remove the lunar samples.
When he did, he said in a 2009 NASA interview, it smelled “like Fourth of July after fireworks.”
“I suspect what I was smelling was some slow oxidation or reaction to the lunar surface material with our atmosphere and humidity in our atmosphere,” he said.
The arriving astronauts also dutifully — and jokingly — filled out a Customs declaration with flight number “Apollo 11” and departure from “Moon.”
In the space on the form asking about conditions on board that could lead to the spread of disease, the typed answer states, “To be determined.”