Homepage for One Small Step. One Giant Leap. Man's first moonwalk, 40 years later
When the Apollo 11 capsule fell from the sky 40 years ago, it looked like a shooting star.
Tracy O'Shields, a Gainesville resident, saw the spaceship fall as he stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet as a part of the Navy's recovery team.
"It came down about three miles from where we were. I didn't know a ship could run that fast," O'Shields said, laughing at his kitchen table. "It looked like the ship was planing on the water. We were standing on the bow at about 45 degrees to keep from getting blown back by the wind. We were running 35 knots. ... It was so fast it vibrated the carriages out of the typewriters."
A helicopter flew over the capsule, dropped a floating ring and the astronauts boarded a small boat. The helicopter brought Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins back to the ship, where they immediately traveled through a tunnel to be tested for moon contamination or diseases. They were locked for two days in a containment trailer, which O'Shields helped unload from the ship once they arrived in Hawaii.
"One of my uncles called my dad and said, ‘Your son's on television offloading that thing!' and daddy had to wait to see the repeat of it," O'Shields recalled.
O'Shields also sat inside the containment capsule before the astronauts did.
"We actually had to go into the capsule and sit in it awhile to make sure they could breathe when they got in ... we'd laugh at each other and make fun of each other" he said. "We kind of looked at (the astronauts) when they got in there and waved at them and they waved back."
O'Shields said his favorite memory is when President Richard Nixon boarded the ship before the astronauts re-entered the atmosphere. He landed on the front part of the ship, where the officers lined up while the sailors stood behind roped lines.
"He saluted everybody, put the lines over his head, pushed the officers aside and started shaking hands. We were like, ‘Man. All right! That's a man,'" he said. "That was an experience I'll never forget."
Recovering Apollo 11 was another task in a long list of tours for O'Shields at the time. He was drafted into the Navy at age 23, attended boot camp in Corpus Christi, Texas, and was shipped out of San Diego on his second day there.
"I didn't realize it, but I am prone to seasickness. When pulled in to Hawaii, I was hanging around a post," he said.
Physicians gave him medicine, and he was never seasick for the rest of his duty.
The Hornet flew rescue support and provided radio transfers in Vietnam, and joined other ships at North Korea as a "show of force," he said. The ship stayed for three tours when replacement ships were prevented from relieving them.
"My son was three months old when I left and 13 months old when I returned. He didn't like me," O'Shields said. "I was a stranger in the house. But we got to be buddies."
Then the men were called back out to recover the Apollo 11 mission.
"We didn't like that. We wanted to stay awhile. Our leave was supposed to be six months," he said. "So we fussed and argued, and somebody cut the lines ... and set off the fog foam systems. .... The captain finally came out over the loudspeaker and said, ‘If anything happens to this ship again, everybody will be confined to the ship and we're going to leave on time if we have to cut holes in the side and row.'"
After the recovery mission, O'Shields completed his tour in the Navy, eventually moving to Sardis Road in Gainesville. He doesn't keep in touch with the men who served on the Hornet with him, but he remains interested in NASA's plans to return to the moon.
"I thought, ‘Wow. I wonder if they will.' They were talking about putting a man on Mars before too much longer. Wow. Now that would be something if we land on Mars. I've always wanted to see an up close picture of Mars, well, actually I want to go," he said, laughing. "I've always thought that would be the greatest thing in the world to go to another planet."
And O'Shields believes it's possible.
"If you put it out there and let them do it, they can do it. We can do anything. This country can accomplish anything it wants to every day," he said. "(President John) Kennedy said, ‘This is what I want done, do it,' and they did."