Between 1967 and 1974 the Apollo and Skylab space missions were watched by millions as the impressive power of the Saturn 5 rocket took man to the moon. Despite the massive media coverage of Neil Armstrong’s famous ‘small step for man’ in 1969, little attention was paid by the newspapers or television outlets to how each Apollo or Skylab mission spaceship was recovered from the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans.
NASA and the United States Navy had worked well together during the earlier Mercury and Gemini space programmes and had perfected many of the techniques needed to recover spacecraft landing at sea. For each of the moon shot missions, the US Navy provided a vast armada of vessels. Not only were ships positioned in the Primary Recovery Area (usually the Pacific Ocean), but a Secondary Atlantic Recovery Ship and support ships were deployed should some unforeseen incident lead to a landing in that area instead. During the Apollo missions launch, the US Navy also had, on standby off Cape Canaveral, a launch abort ship, as well as numerous maritime search and rescue aircraft.
For each recovery there were no fewer than five Sea King helicopters in the air. These were called: ‘Recovery’, the Primary helicopter for crew recovery; ‘Swim’, backup for the primary helicopter; ‘ELS’, for recovery of the main parachutes; ‘Apex’ for recovery of the drogue chute and apex cover; and finally ‘Photo’ to take photographs of the event.
Each recovery involved US Navy swimmers attaching a sea anchor, followed by a floating collar, to the Command Module. Then a recovery raft would be attached, and only then would the process of helping the astronauts out of the spacecraft begin. The astronauts were lifted into the ‘Recovery’ helicopter one at a time until all three were safely out of the Command Module, and they were then ferried to the waiting Primary Recovery Ship.
Once the astronauts were safely aboard the helicopter, the process of recovering the spacecraft itself would begin. The Primary Recovery Ship would move to within 100200ft of the Command Module and then lift it aboard using ship cranes. From the time of splashdown to the CM being safely secured aboard the ship, it usually took around two hours.
The first manned Apollo space mission was Apollo 7, with Mercury 7 veteran Wally Schirra, Don Eisele and Walter Cunningham aboard. This mission was a test flight which saw the spaceships in earth’s orbit. It was also the first time that a live TV show was broadcast from space.
On the mission’s return from space, the spacecraft landed in the Pacific and the aircraft carrier USS Essex retrieved the men and the spacecraft from the sea.
In addition to the carrier, no fewer than eight other US Navy ships were present, including two attack cargo ships, USS Areneb and USS Cambria, the latter ship being a veteran of the Marshall Islands campaign, the invasion of Saipan, Leyte and Okinawa and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Four destroyers provided the escort, while fuel came from USS Ponchatoula.
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