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50 Years Ago: Apollo 11 Returns to Houston

Apollo 11 splashed down 950 miles southwest of Hawaii on July 24, 1969. The Command Module (CM) Columbia and the crew of Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins were successfully recovered and delivered aboard the prime recovery ship the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CVS-12). Requirements to prevent back contamination of the Earth with any possible lunar microorganisms made the Apollo 11 recovery the most complicated in spaceflight history. Once aboard the carrier, the astronauts entered the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) along with NASA flight surgeon Dr. William R. Carpentier and NASA recovery engineer John K. Hirasaki. The goal was to return the astronauts, Columbia, and the lunar samples and film magazines to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL) at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), now the Johnson Space Center in Houston, as expeditiously as possible while maintaining the strict biological isolation protocols.

Within hours after splashdown, Hirasaki retrieved the Moon rocks contained in two Apollo Lunar Sample Return Containers (ALSRC), film magazines, and other items from Columbia, which was connected to the MQF via a flexible tunnel to maintain biological isolation. He sealed the ALSRCs, film cassettes, and crew medical samples taken inside the MQF in plastic bags and transferred them to the outside through a transfer lock that included a sodium hypochlorite decontamination wash. Outside the MQF, NASA engineers retrieved the items from the transfer lock, placed them into transport containers, and loaded them aboard two separate aircraft. The first aircraft carrying the ALSRC containing Moon rocks, the core samples, and the Solar Wind Collection experiment, and a second package containing film magazines, departed Hornet within a few hours of the recovery, flying to Johnston Island 180 miles away. Workers there placed the two containers aboard a C-141 Starlifter cargo aircraft that flew directly to Ellington Air Force Base (AFB) near MSC in Houston, arriving the afternoon of July 25. The second aircraft departed Hornet six and a half hours after the first and included the second ALSRC, additional film as well as the astronaut medical samples. It flew directly to Hickam AFB in Hawaii where workers transferred the containers to an Apollo Range Instrumentation Aircraft (ARIA) that flew them directly to Houston.”

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