North Dakota man watched aboard USS Hornet when ship recovered Apollo 11 astronauts

Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon, in a photograph taken by Neil Armstrong.

BOTTINEAU — Dale Simon of Bottineau watched from the USS Hornet as Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins and their “Columbia” Command Module were pulled from the Pacific Ocean when they returned to Earth after their historic lunar landing mission 50 years ago.

“I saw it happen. I could see it from the hangar deck,” Simon said.

While astronauts Commander Armstrong and lunar module pilot Aldrin descended in the Lunar Module “Eagle” to explore the moon, Collins remained with the Command and Service Modules “Columbia” in lunar orbit in July 1969. Armstrong became the first person to step onto the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, and Aldrin joined him 19 minutes later.

The USS Hornet (CVS 12), a U.S. aircraft carrier, was on hand on July 24, 1969, for the splashdown but just prior Simon said the ship had to change positions. “We had to move (from near Pearl Harbor, Hawaii) because a big storm came in.”

He said he remembers the ship crossed the equator “because when you cross the equator you go through an initiation.” Simon was among those who had not crossed the equator before.

A third-class shipfitter, Simon was assigned to the Repair Division of the Engineering Department.

“We were firefighters, welders, pipefitters, carpenters aboard,” he said.

When the “Columbia” Command Module with the astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, Simon said helicopters took frogmen out to the site. He said the frogmen were dropped off and a big lifesaver made for the space capsule was placed around the capsule to keep it afloat.

The capsule and astronauts were brought onto the ship.

“On No. 2 hangar bay we had a crane and that came down and hooked onto it (the space capsule) and put it onto an elevator,” he said. He said the elevator was used to move planes from hangar deck to flight deck. “They got it on there and got them to the hangar bay,” he said.

He said the astronauts left the space capsule and went into a shiny silver Airstream trailer located “in our hangar bay.”

Watching as the astronauts came out of the capsule, Simon said, “They looked great.”

The Airstream trailer served as the Mobile Quarantine Facility where the astronauts were confined for several days because of the concern there might be germs on the moon that could wipe out life on earth. From the splashdown site, the USS Hornet transported them to Hawaii and then the unit was placed in a plane and flown to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“The big part was getting them aboard ship and quarantined,” Simon said.

“President Nixon was there on the ship,” Simon said. Nixon was there to welcome the astronauts home. Simon recalled Nixon was in the Navy during World War II. He said he also remembers that the fuel cells were removed from the capsule.

“It was pretty exciting just to be there and they picked our ship,” Simon said.

The Hornet had been in Vietnam. When it was ready to return to the states, then it was called to Korea because a reconnaissance plane had been shot down. “We had to go there for quite a few days,” Simon recalled. The ship returned to the states, prepared for pickup of the Apollo 11 astronauts and capsule and then headed for Hawaii.

When the Hornet was in port, Simon said it had about 1,500 men aboard. When they were ready to deploy and anchored off San Diego, with aircraft and aircrews added that brought the ship’s population to around 4,000-5,000 people.

Simon served in the Navy for four years — from Sept. 7, 1965-Sept. 6, 1969 — including during the Vietnam War.

“We got in on a big one,” said Simon of the Hornet being chosen to recover Apollo 11 after the astronauts’ historic moon walk. “Now it’s all part of history,” he said, adding, “I never figured I’d be on a ship to pick up an astronaut,” he said.

USS Hornet played a key part in the Apollo program as a recovery ship for unmanned and manned spaceflights, according to historical information. The Hornet also recovered Apollo 12 in November 1969.

Today, the USS Hornet is in drydock in Alameda, Calif., where it is part of the USS Hornet Museum including exhibits from the NASA Apollo moon exploration missions.

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