Festooned with polka-dotted buoyancy balloons, the five-ton lunar command module appeared appropriately festive bobbing in the Pacific’s tropic waters as a Navy helicopter recovered its precious cargo, plucking three astronauts from inside the vessel and ferrying them to the starboard deck of the USS Hornet.
It was July 24, 1969, and Wade Laird, a postal clerk with the U.S. Navy, was celebrating his 21st birthday, observing the milestone from on board the Hornet and cheering as astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, along with their spacecraft Columbia, were recovered following humankind’s first lunar landing.
“That’s how I celebrated my 21st birthday. Waiting for the first men on the moon to come home,” Laird said. “Boy, it was something else.”
After alighting on the aircraft carrier, the astronauts, who had been decontaminated on a “decon” raft and outfitted in Biological Isolation Garments, were immediately spirited away to a Quarantine Containment Facility – a repurposed Airstream trailer turn isolation chamber, designed to cordon off the space men given the remote possibility they’d been contaminated with “moon germs.”
“This was the first time that any human being had set foot on a celestial body,” Laird said. “They didn’t know what they might have brought back.”
The trailer was labeled “Hornet + 3” and the lunar explorers, peering through a glass window as 500 million people around the world watched on television, exchanged playful banter with President Richard Nixon, who led a terrestrial welcome wagon of Navy brass in a ceremony that lasted 10 minutes. The president remarked how, while the world seemed much bigger, its population had never felt as unified than when watching the mission unfold.
“The whole world was watching and there was a real sense of camaraderie, just pride everywhere,” Laird said. “To be involved with human history like that, to be involved with recovering the first humans ever to set foot on the moon, was pretty cool.”
The eight-day Apollo 11 mission marked the first time in the history of mankind that humans had walked on another planetary body.
On July 20, 1969, four days before Laird celebrated his birthday near the splashdown scene, two astronauts, Mission Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., landed on the surface of the moon in the Lunar Module Eagle.
Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the lunar surface and set foot in the Sea of Tranquility, with Armstrong famously reporting, “Houston, Tranquility Base here – the Eagle has landed.” Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface several hours later, uttering the now iconic statement, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.
During an historic 2.5-hour lunar surface excursion, the astronauts set up scientific instruments, shot photographs, and collected rock and soil samples. After the Eagle rendezvoused with the CSM Columbia, the astronauts returned to Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean about a half-mile from the Hornet’s deck, and fulfilling the late President John F. Kennedy’s challenge for America to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade had ended.
As a postal clerk on board the aircraft carrier, Laird’s primary responsibility was stamping scores of philatelic, self-addressed stamped envelopes with an image of the lunar landing and sending them to enthusiastic observers around world.
“We stamped trillions of those things. We broke every mail-handling record there was,” he said.
Four months later, Laird was on board the Hornet when it repeated the flawless performance during the recovery of the Apollo 12 astronauts.
Laird, a graduate of Whitefish High School, swells with pride when discussing his involvement in the Apollo program, and the significance of recovering astronauts as they returned from the moon.
No birthday has been as memorable since.
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