“Houston, we have splashdown” is the second most meaningful phrase NASA’s mission control wanted to hear during the Apollo days. Second only to “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,” obviously.
But so often left out in the story of America’s early missions in space is the herculean effort that went into retrieving astronauts and their ships out of the ocean when it was all over. Though the Apollo missions were entirely in the realm of NASA, the task of recovering the returning astronauts out of remote parts of vast oceans fell in the hands of the United States Navy.
Be it the Atlantic or the Pacific, the NASA philosophy of human-crewed spaceship splashdowns over water instead of land left these oceans littered with freshly returned spaceships for the Navy to recover. Their efforts never failed to get the astronauts home in one piece. But their spacecraft? Not so much.
Indeed the idea of plucking space junk, usually with living beings inside of them, out of the ocean is a profoundly American concept. NASA’s perennial rivals at Roscosmos were notorious for delivering their cosmonauts from orbit over solid land. Whether or not they wound up in Soviet territory or not was a matter of contention at points. In the early days, cosmonauts were even expected to bail out from their spacecraft and float down on their lonesome.
Yuri Gagarin’s first ever trip back from orbit was made in this fashion. When viewed from this perspective, soft water landings on inflatable pontoons sound like a safer bet of getting home alive. The first recovery of an object that flew into space by an American Navy crew occurred on May 28, 1959. On that day, the USS Kiowa fleet tug recovered the nose cone of a Jupiter class booster rocket/ ballistic missile off the coast of North Antigua in the Caribbean.
The U.S. Air Force conducted this test of a Jupiter launch vehicle, but the same principle was to be applied to human-crew-rated NASA spacecraft for many years to come. The first unmanned test of the crew capsule for Project Mercury, the first American manned space program, was recovered by the destroyer USS Strong 1,500 miles off the coast of Florida on September 9, 1959. During this period, the Navy recovered a litany of chimpanzees launched aboard test vehicles.
The Navy was back in action for Freedom 7, the first American spaceflight mission piloted by astronaut Alan Shepard recovered aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain. In the early days of project Mercury, Navy crews flying Sikorsky H-34 cargo helicopters were tasked with fastening the spacecraft to a tether, uprighting the ship, and allowing the astronaut to exit the craft and attach their space suits to hoists to bring them into the cabin of the helicopter.
On the subsequent mission, Liberty Bell 7, the spacecraft was lost due to a premature detonation of the hatch door firing pins in the water, nearly bringing astronaut Gus Grissom down with it. Grissom was transported without his spaceship to the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Randolph, the base of operation for the same helicopter that’d just failed to recover the Mercury No.11 spacecraft.
It was determined a lack of a safety raft combined with the rotor wash of two helicopters contributed to a disturbing lack of safety, and procedures were promptly changed. The spacecraft would sit at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean until 1999. From 1961 through 1975, 30 different spacecraft from all three American manned space programs made their way onto the decks of American warships.
From Mercury through Gemini and Apollo, everything from destroyers, amphibious assault ships, and full-blown aircraft carriers were employed to bring astronauts safely home from their time spent in low Earth orbit or, in the cases of Apollo 8 through 17, on or in the orbit of the Moon.
Did you subscribe to our daily newsletter?
It’s Free! Click here to Subscribe!