That’s what a lot of people feared the Apollo 11 astronauts would bring back with them from the lunar surface: contaminants. While Monday marked 40 years since man’s first steps on the moon, Friday is the anniversary of the splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. My uncle, Wes Chesser, was one of the Navy swimmers that helped recover the astronauts (he also did so in Apollo 6 and led the team on Apollo 10):
The return of Apollo 10 in May 1969 had been “picture perfect,” recalled Chesser, who was seated in a chopper when he spotted that capsule burning through the earth’s atmosphere “like a comet” before splashing into the Pacific.
After dropping into the ocean and attaching a sea anchor and a floatation collar to the capsule, he and the other divers helped pull astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan out of the spacecraft and into a raft.
But the water was much rougher when Apollo 11 splashed down two months later, Chesser recalled. And NASA’s fear of “moon germs” meant that only one diver was allowed near the astronauts–and only after they’d all donned “Biological Isolation Garments.”
So Chesser and two others waited patiently in a raft upwind of the capsule while Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were scrubbed down. As the astronauts were hauled into a helicopter for the short flight to the Hornet, Chesser swam nearby in case anyone fell into the water.
The diver who did the astronaut scrubbing was Clancy Hatleberg, who in turn was scrubbed down by the astronauts, before they were lifted by helicopter to the U.S.S. Hornet, where they began their 65-hour quarantine. The Navy divers were left behind with the capsule for 90 minutes while President Nixon congratulated the astronauts on the Hornet. They found a way to pass the time, as Wes explains.
I can still remember bragging about it during show-and-tell in my kindergarten class in La Mesa, California.