On moon landing anniversary, Alameda celebrates those who welcomed Apollo 11 home

Bruce Johnson co-piloted the helicopter that picked up the Apollo 11 astronauts once they splashed into the Pacific Ocean.

John Hirasaki spent days running the quarantine facility that housed Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins upon their return.

And Rolf Sabye backed up a member of the navigation team on the USS Hornet as the ship retrieved Apollo 11’s command module.

On Saturday, the 50th anniversary of the day men first walked on the moon, Sabye, Hirasaki and Johnson were back aboard the Hornet, the vessel they were on four days after that achievement, when it was the lead recovery ship that welcomed the astronauts home.

They had come for a day-long celebration aboard the floating museum in Alameda, along with others who served on the ship or as part of the Apollo missions. Hundreds of visitors gawked at moon rocks, snapped photos in front of aircraft in the Hornet’s cavernous hangar bay and asked the veterans of the mission questions about those historic days.

While none of the men became celebrities like Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, each recalled the role they played among the cast of thousands who made the moon landing a reality.

“Everything was very intense,” Sabye said. “We didn’t worry about anything other than doing the job.”

In Johnson’s case, that meant assisting lead helicopter pilot and future Vice Admiral Donald Jones through their flight to retrieve the astronauts — and reassuring Jones during pre-landing checks that everything was in order for them to touch down on the Hornet in front of President Richard Nixon and untold millions of television viewers.

“He asked me at least six times if the landing gear was down,” Johnson said. It was.

Sabye’s job started after the astronauts had been successfully delivered to the Hornet, as much of the world was already celebrating.

In the spring of 1969, the crew of the Hornet had just returned to Long Beach from a deployment in Vietnam when they learned they would be a part of the Apollo mission. For a 21-year-old Sabye and others, getting sent back out to sea was a disappointment at first. That faded once they realized the role they were set to play in the space race.

The navigators knew that recovering the command module was easier said than done — to do so, the nearly 900-foot-long World War II-era Hornet needed to carefully maneuver alongside a capsule that was about 12 feet in diameter in the open Pacific Ocean, without accidentally crashing into it. Sabye’s team did 16 simulations of the process to prepare, he said, then successfully recovered the command module when the rehearsals were over.

“It wasn’t until afterward that everybody took a big breath and got to enjoy the moment,” he said.

As Johnson and Sabye’s contributions to Apollo 11 wrapped up, Hirasaki was only halfway through his.

The 28-year-old NASA engineer spent about a week inside an Airstream trailer retrofitted to serve as the mission’s Mobile Quarantine Facility. So much about the moon remained unknown in 1969 that health officials worried there could be lunar pathogens that might pose a threat if people on Earth were exposed to them.

“It was an unknown risk,” Hirasaki said. But when NASA asked for volunteers to stay inside the trailer and keep its systems running, Hirasaki knew he wanted “to be a part of such an exciting, adventurous mission.”

Hirasaki worked to maintain the facility’s air lock and its communication with the outside world, which allowed for the conversation the astronauts had with Nixon aboard the Hornet. And, once the command module was onboard, it was Hirasaki’s job to go inside it to retrieve and package up the moon rocks the astronauts had brought back.

He spent three days pre-quarantined in the trailer before the astronauts arrived, and the four days of their trip back to the U.S. after their return. Flight surgeon William Carpentier, who also attended Saturday’s event, was inside as well to monitor the astronauts.

Hirasaki said he never became too concerned the moon could be a danger — and, of course, it wasn’t.

“You were much too busy to worry about that,” Hirasaki said.