The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) states that a total of 8,378 objects have been launched into space.

But one stands out from the others, particularly for Navy veterans Petty Officer 3rd Class Ron Skaden and Aviation Fuels Specialist 2nd Class Dennis Dooley.

Fifty years ago – July 20, 1969 -- Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon.

The Eagle had landed.

Meanwhile, Skaden, Dooley and host of other sailors on the USS Hornet prepared for the Apollo 11 splashdown.

On July 22, 1969, Apollo 11’s cone-shaped Command Module containing Armstrong, Aldrin and module pilot Michael Collins plummeted back to Earth in a delicate dance to re-enter the atmosphere. “When you hit the atmosphere at 24,000 mph, it creates a hell of a fireball,” Michael Neufeld -- a senior curator in the space history department of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum -- told The History Channel. “If they came in too steep, they would heat up too fast and spacecraft would burn up. If they came in too shallow, the capsule would skip off the atmosphere like a rock on a pond,” Neufeld said.

Zach Thompson, Coordinator of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Ralph Mueller Planetarium said there were a lot of risk factors involved in the Apollo 11 mission in general. “There were so many things that could have gone wrong from start to finish,” he said.

Long before the spacecraft departed, sailors on the USS Hornet was preparing for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, about 800 nautical miles southwest of Hawaii. Among those on the USS Hornet were Yorkite Skaden and eventual York transplant Dooley.

Sailors and other experts on the USS Hornet worked intensely, but initially not quite sure for what. The ship was tested over and again for speed, agility and precision. In the meantime, rumors circulated around the ship. It wasn’t until after the USS Hornet’s particulars were calculated and perfected that the sailors officially learned of their mission.

The testing continued. Helicopters dropped mock-up capsules. Divers descended from hovering helicopters to retrieve the imitation capsules. Upon completion, the recovery ship turned around and repeated the process – sailors often working 12- to 20-hour days.

“Day after day we’d talk about what the team could do better and then we went out the next day to practice again,” Dooley said.

“At the time we were doing it, it was a lot of work,” Skaden said.

No amount of work, however, could defy Mother Nature. Inclement weather in the original target area changed the landing point by about 250 miles, according to NASA. The sailors rushed the USS Hornet across the nighttime ocean to get to the new target.

After over a month of preparation, the culminating moment came.

“It was early dawn,” Skaden recalled. “We heard two sonic booms as the capsule went through the layers of the atmosphere.”

Those sonic booms and a speck in the early-morning sky announced the Apollo 11 Command Module’s approach July 24, 1969.

As the capsule moved in, three large parachutes attached to the capsule came into view, Skaden said. “[The] chutes were each about the size of a house.”

Once the capsule splashed into the ocean, the skillful divers strapped a flotation collar around the capsule, helping the astronauts out of the pod – the three men’s first time on their home planet in 195 hours, 18 minutes, and 35 seconds.

Divers helped them into a floatation device. The astronauts were lifted from the dingy-like boat into a helicopter, via baskets attached to a cable.

To retrieve the 13,000-pound (5,900 kg) capsule from the water, Dooley said the recovery ship’s large cranes attached to the capsule, carefully resting the it aboard the USS Hornet. Skaden was on the back-up crew for the cranes. “My view was spectacular,” Skaden said.

Recovery of the beat up capsule, with an interior similar in size to that of a large automobile, was a success.

Skaden credited the success of the recovery process to teamwork. “Everybody worked together for one goal and we just did our job,” he said.

“Everyone was doing it, so you didn’t worry about it,” Dooley said.

According to NASA it took over 400,000 engineers, scientists and technicians to get the astronauts to the moon – and back to Earth safely.

Thompson said it was attention to detail and the ultimate goal of perfection that made the Apollo 11 mission come together. “It’s a story with many parts and many players, but all of these components were vitally important and proved how this truly was a national and global triumph… we achieved what so many had previously thought was impossible.”

Fifty years later, what was made possible still inspires awe all over the world. It took time for Skaden to realize the mission’s magnitude. “After a while you realize how significant it was to the history of the world,” Skaden said. “It was historic, and it will never happen again.”


Nicholas Brophy contributed to this story. Brophy is an aerospace engineering intern at Collins Aerospace, and staying with Granada and Dennis Dooley. Fittingly, Brophy has been interested in space since he was a little boy -- his interest in Apollo 11 has always been front and center. He plans to pursue a career in the aerospace industry, eventually in a management position. Brophy is a Georgia Tech student, and spends much of his free time as a leading member in Georgia Tech’s competition in the Spaceport America Cup -- the world’s largest international rocketry competition.

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