45 Years Ago Today…Apollo 11 Splashdown: Day 9
Here is the final article of the Apollo 11 series written for Eyes Of A Generation by Jodie Peeler on this historic event, complete with videos. Our thanks to Jodie for a job well done! Enjoy and share!
The conclusion of what was not only the most elaborate flight ever undertaken by humans, but the most complicated television programs ever aired, started around lunchtime EDT on July 24. The networks began their special coverage about an hour before the Apollo 11 command module would separate from its service module and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.
Although the networks had their correspondents arrayed around the nation and world for reaction, in one area they had to pool their resources.
While competition was elsewhere, cooperation was the watchword aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, on station about 900 miles southwest of Hawaii, a gallant World War II veteran awaiting the arrival of three men back from the Moon. This was no ordinary splashdown, either: not just the return of the first lunar landing mission, but President Richard Nixon was aboard, taking a quick detour during a diplomatic trip around the world, ready to deliver a personal welcome home to the three astronauts.
Deployed with Hornet were dozens of technicians, camera operators, engineers and journalists whose job it was to relay the events back home. Underneath a 22-foot inflatable radome on Hornet’s flight deck was a portable satellite earth station developed by General Electric and Western Union International, beaming live color television pictures from Hornet to Jamesburg, California via Intelsat III. For the Apollo 11 deployment, ABC was selected to provide cameras and remote units.
Although the television pool aboard recovery ships was typically a two-man team, for this deployment all three television networks had newsmen aboard: Dallas Townsend of CBS, Ron Nessen of NBC, and Keith McBee of ABC. Mutual correspondent Don Blair handled the radio pool.
Experience with live recovery transmissions from deep in the Pacific during the Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 missions had taught the networks, GE, Western Union and the Navy a great deal. While the live broadcasts from USS Yorktown during Apollo 8 had numerous glitches and dropouts, increased cooperation and troubleshooting meant the live telecasts from Hornet went beautifully. Although Apollo 11 splashed down too far away from the ship to be caught on television, correspondent Ron Nessen relayed the happy words “They’re back from the moon!” to the audience at home. A giddy Walter Cronkite exclaimed, “Hot dog! There they are and they’re all right! Hot dog! Apollo 11 has made it!”
A little while later Hornet was close enough to the scene for cameras to capture distant pictures of the astronauts being hoisted aboard the famous helicopter 66 for the short ride to the ship. The cameras aboard Hornet captured it all: the helicopter landing, being lowered to the hangar deck, and then being wheeled back alongside the Mobile Quarantine Facility. Briskly the astronauts, clad in suits meant to quarantine them, walked across Hornet’s hangar deck into the MQF. About an hour later, after each had an initial medical exam and enjoyed a quick shower, the astronauts were welcomed home by President Nixon during a brief ceremony.
With the astronauts safely aboard Hornet, it was over – not only the epic journey of Apollo 11, but also the epic television programs that brought the journey to the people. The closing paragraphs of the CBS book “10:56:20 P.M. EDT 7/20/1969” sum up the final moments of the greatest television epic ever broadcast:
“At 3:25 p.m. the final credits began to roll on the television screen – a visual record of the people who had contributed to making television history during the coverage of the Apollo 11 astronauts’ epic adventure. It took seven minutes to complete the honor roll – the longest roster in television history.
“At 3:32 p.m. EDT, [executive producer Robert] Wussler and [CBS News Vice President Gordon] Manning shook hands around the control room, with [Clarence (Red)] Cross, [Joel] Banow and [Richard] Knox, their producer, director and associate director, then with CBS President Frank Stanton and CBS News President Richard S. Salant, both of whom had been in the control room throughout the four hours of splashdown coverage.
“There was an air of celebration in the studio and editorial area. Then everyone started to drift away. The most memorable week of television in their lives had come to an end.”
As this series of essays ends, I’d like to add a personal note: the opportunity to relive these historic days, and examine them through the prism of television history, has been its own journey for me. It’s brought challenges, but it’s also been a lot of fun. I’m grateful to Bobby for letting me share these little essays with you each day, and grateful to all who have read them, liked them, and made their own contributions. To all of you, my thanks.
Now, here’s some links with video. A Western Union International commercial from prior to splashdown, showing the satellite system deployed aboard Hornet:
Re-entry and recovery as broadcast by ABC, with Tom Jarriel and Jules