By Thom Patterson, CNN
(CNN) - As he stood on the floating Apollo 11 capsule, Navy SEAL John Wolfram was very aware that the safety of the first men to walk on the moon was in his hands. The whole world was watching.
Amazing circumstances - for a guy just two years out of high school.
It was July 24, 1969 - four days after the historic landing - and millions were anxious to know whether the astronauts had survived their fiery fall into the Pacific about a thousand miles off Hawaii. Minutes before he stepped onto the tiny capsule, it had been plummeting from space into the atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour. Parts of the spacecraft's shell were blackened. Wolfram could see steam still rising from it.
"I looked in the hatch window to see if the astronauts were OK," recalls Wolfram. "They smiled and gave me a thumbs up. Being the first to look them in the eye and see that they're OK - it's quite a rush."
On this 43rd anniversary of the well-known mission, here's an Apollo 11 story that's told less often.
It's the story of a handpicked four-man team of tough Navy SEALs who played a key role in what may be mankind's greatest technological achievement.
"The splashdown of Apollo 11 represented that very moment when President (John F.) Kennedy's national goal of placing a man on the moon before the decade was out and returning him safely to Earth was finally accomplished," says Scott Carmichael, author of "Moon Men Return."
Because the task was incredibly physically demanding, the Navy had picked its strongest swimmers - elite graduates of its SEAL training school, known to be among the toughest of its kind in the world. They had trained for months and served on recovery teams for previous Apollo moonshots.
The mission: stabilize and secure the spacecraft, decontaminate the astronauts and get them safely aboard a hovering helicopter bound for the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.
Before Wolfram could ever step onto the spacecraft, he first had to catch it. From a chopper hanging low over the site, he jumped into the cold sea. Then he had to lasso a high-tech bucking bronco.
The fact that Wolfram was able to attach an underwater parachute - called a sea anchor– to stop the drifting "bobbing, 12,000-pound spinning behemoth," was an almost super-human accomplishment, says Carmichael. "If that thing hits you in the head, you're done."
The spacecraft was drifting away from Wolfram, pitching up and down.
"You only get one chance at this. The capsule was moving so fast in a high-gust situation that if a swimmer misses that hand hold, he'll never catch up to it," says Carmichael. Wolfram had very little time to grab a tiny recessed hand-hold on the vessel - and when he did, it pulled him out of the water like a fish on a hook. "He held on and managed to get that sea anchor attached."
Watch NASA video showing Wolfram and his team wrestling with the capsule
Joined by lead frogman Wes Chesser and teammate Mike Mallory, the trio then struggled against 12-foot-high waves and 28-mph winds to attach a 200-pound inflatable floatation ring around the spacecraft. "We were the muscle guys of the outfit," jokes Mallory, 66, who now works with utility control systems in Hartland, Michigan.
NASA officials were impressed with how quickly they wrapped the ring around the vessel. "Wolfram and I were very strong swimmers, so we muscled that ring around there," Mallory says. According to Carmichael, Mallory's physical power made him a "horse" when it came to swimming in the open water of the Pacific. And Chesser "was just unflappable," says Carmichael.
"All hell could be breaking loose and Wes just had that capacity to calmly look at something and figure out what needed to be done."
The team attached inflatable rafts to the capsule and overall mission leader Clancy Hatleberg helped astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin out of the capsule - unsure if they would be able to stay on their feet after days in zero gravity.
The Apollo crew and the frogmen put on special suits and masks - called biological isolation garments - to protect them against "lunar pathogens" - possible biological threats the astronauts may have unknowingly brought back from the moon.
There were a few minor glitches. The masks made it was difficult to communicate, forcing the men at times to use hand signals. At one point the masks' goggles began to steam up. For a few minutes, they had trouble getting the capsule hatch to lock shut.
"It would have compromised the floating integrity of the spacecraft to leave the hatch open," says Chesser, remembering how an open hatch led to the flooding and sinking of astronaut Gus Grissom's space capsule after splashdown in 1961.
Watch NASA video of the astronauts exiting the capsule
One-by-one, Hatleberg helped the astronauts into a basket-like carriage called a Billy-Pugh net before they were hoisted into a Navy chopper for the ride to the USS Hornet.
The space race "was an extremely exciting time for our country," says Chesser, the kind of excitement that has since gone away. Now with the end of NASA's space shuttle program, U.S. space technology and operations are shifting toward private industry and commercial space ventures.
Government-run and privately run space-flight have their own advantages, says Chesser, 67, now a retired defense contractor. "But the space program is of strategic importance. In time of war - or needing to defend ourselves - it seems like it should be under the cognizance of NASA and the (military) services."
After making Apollo 11 history, and serving two tours in the Vietnam War, Wolfram's life changed forever in 1971, when he attended a church revival. He's now an ordained minister who serves much of each year as a missionary in Southeast Asia.
He and Chesser have visited Washington's Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum which is now home to the Apollo 11 capsule. "I loved being a Navy frogman," recalls Wolfram, now 63, who detailed his adventure in a memoir, "Splashdown."
For Chesser, seeing the spacecraft again put the mission in a new light.
"What we did seemed so easy back then because we trained so hard and were in good shape, but years later I realized how physically demanding that whole process was," Chesser says. "To think about having to do that mission today, I probably would half drown."
The Apollo crew summed it up 43 years ago on live TV aboard the USS Hornet.
President Nixon asked the astronauts jokingly if their splashdown recovery was the most difficult part of their mission.
Neil Armstrong replied with a smile, "It was one of the hardest parts."
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Watch NASA video showing Wolfram and his team wrestling with the capsule.
I have to say that I felt a great sense of pride as I read the article and saw you picture. It is so good to be able to call you my friend and brother. I think you have always been very cutting-edge adventurous, before and after your call to missions. You're a great hero John!
And, by the way if someone reading this comment who hasn't already purchased John's book, you need to go to his website right now and purchase it. His website is: johnwolfram.org. You will not regret the money spent on this book.
The book by John Wolfram 'Splashdown' is an excellent book...very interesting as he details his Navy UDT training (later renamed Seal Teams) and his involvement in recovering the Apollo 11 astronauts. He also reveals how he came to attend a church revival service that completely turned his life around and started him on the journey to become a missionary to Southeast Asia. You will probably have a difficult time putting the book aside before reading it in its entirety. As a side note some of the malcontents who have posted above could use some education and direction in their lives. Enough said...
I wish I lived in an age where a man of significant importance could point towards the stars and declare humanity would step foot on a particular rock within a decade. America used to reach for the stars and we no longer strive for the unbelievable. We should. We need to.
America has not abandoned space:
*the space station is alive and well
*Mars Rover sill in operation and a better one is on the way
*private spacecraft are now coming online
*USAF recently landed an unmanned shuttle
*new panets are being discovered by the dozens with the Kepler mission and other methods
The USA has become a giant soup kitchen – its citizens pushing each other around in line to get a laddle of broth that will barely keep its dependents alive. The line is too long, and the soup pot is empty. You can only scrape the pot so long while pouring water in to keep fooling the line into thinking there is more to eat. The pot is empty – brought to you by hope and change.
Having lived through that time as a young boy, it made a tremendous impression on me and I have never lost my enthusiasm for space exploration, both manned and unmanned. While unmanned exploration by the U.S. is doing almost unbelievably well right now, the public is rightfully uninspired by the transitioning manned program. I suggest an assembled-in-orbit nuclear-powered spacecraft that can carry at least 4 and do at least a 100,000 mph on the way to Mars. If we make it real fast, reasonably big and beautiful, it will inspire. Put the name Enterprise on the side to show how far we want to go.
Will always be awed by the Apollo program. Saw several of the launches from the front yard...missed all the splashdowns tho...
I took my mother to the National Air and Space Museum and had her touch the moon rock. I touched it too. Imagine that. For thousands of years humans looked up at the moon and wondered about it. My mother and I got to touch it! Thanks to everyone that worked on Apollo. You all did a great job!
I had the privilege of being able to work with one of the engineers who manned the Kwajalein Island antenna station during Apollo. Sadly, he passed away a few years back. Here's to you, Dick!
Glad to see this story make the CNN website. Knew John back in the 80's and heard about his training and acheivements in sermons he delivered. He tells his story in detail in the book "Splashdown" It can be ordered from his website (johnwolfram.org) as well as following his missionary work. Truly fascinating!
This man was the true hero
Another example of why America is over $16 trillion dollars in debt. This program was a complete waste of our tax dollars.
Not True- The Apollo Program sowed the seeds for the development of the microprocessor, semiconductor device fabrication, aerospace material processing, array antenna theory and design. It is the basis of things like cellphones, PDAs, tablets, computers and Iphones and airplanes that we all take for granted these days....
I won't try to list them here, but I assure you that you have many products and technologies in your home and your life that wouldn't be there were it not for the space program. It isn't just the race for space rocks. It advances society as a whole.
So I imagine that you're content sitting on your can. The space race created over 100000 jobs back then and continues to empower adventure into the unknown.
How was it wasted money when it went towards providing jobs for Americans? 300,000 people worked directly and indirectly on the Apollo program, and the money spent on it stayed in America.
It wasnt built by the Chinese or with foreign resources.
If anything, that is exactly what the Government needs to do again to re-energize business and get people working.
The only problem with that idea is this; where do we get the money? We are 16 or more trillion dollars in debt so how do we do it? Government jobs aren't jobs, they are simply a means of passing around tax payer money.
"Government jobs aren't jobs"
Where the heck do people come up with this kind of crap?
So I guess police officers and firefighters don't have jobs, they just "take money and pass it around." They don't provide any useful services, they're just blood-sucking leeches on the public dole.
Same goes for teachers in public schools, military service members, EMTs and paramedics, the scientists who worked on the Manhattan project, the DARPA researchers who developed the internet, and so on. Nope, nothing useful ever came from those people; they just sucked up public funds their whole lives.
I guess in your world we'd get rid of all these people since they're useless government workers who just suck up resources and provide nothing in return. What we really need is some "job creator" to come along and make loads of new minimum-wage jobs at McDonalds or WalMart. Yeah, that'll get the country going again!
nytw, You're just another example of why America is behind in science. Apollo was the greatest gathering of effort and resources in the history of man that was not aimed at war or preparations for war. As you sit in your home enjoying the instant communications and weather forcasting and GPS and protective gear for firefighters and medical advances, be thankful for that 'complete waste' of manpower and resources, and quit wasting electrons on the internet with your inane comments.
You had the nerve to type up that drivel on a personal computer? The thought that you might have a computer sitting in your home was foreign at the time of the first moon landing. I guess you use a flat-panel monitor that uses the technology first used on the space shuttle, and later for "glass co.ckpits" that are used in all modern jetliners? WOW!
Go on YouTube and find Kennedy's "we choose to go to the moon" speech. Listen to the whole thing and you'll understand why it was worth all the money.
And Tang. Don't forget Tang. lol
It is encouraging to see so many people disagree with nytw and understand what the space program does for us all.
Houston, we have have a troll indicator light.
"Another example of why America is over $16 trillion dollars in debt. This program was a complete waste of our tax dollars." – nytw
^This lame post is brought to you, in part, by technologies that came to be during Project Apollo^
Read the comments below in order to properly clue yourself in. We're not REAL Americans? Gosh, does that mean men in dark suits and sunglasses are going to show up on my doorstep and deport me to another country? I wonder where I'll go. I hear Aruba's nice, hope they deport me there, since I believe we did go to the moon and therefore I'm not a real American. Right, DH?
Just remember when that old guy in front of you in line at the supermarket might be annoying you b/c he's moving too slow. Guys like that kicked a** in many ways that we don't know about in their younger days until articles like this are written. I was on a flight with an old guy holding up the line while boarding. Once seated the pilot came back to meet him. Turns out he was flying B-25's over North Africa back in the day getting shot up before most of us were born. The point is everybody has a story and most of them are cooler/stronger/deeper than your own...
A minor error in the story: the men who secured the capsule were UDT (Underwater Demolition Team), not SEALs. Although both went through the same training – BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training, some men were assigned to SEAL Teams, while others were assigned to UDT Teams. These men, like all of the others on the recovery missions, were assigned to UDT. Same as Jesse Ventura (Janos). The UDT Teams were later redesignated as SEAL Teams in the 80's.
Mitch Bucklew, a member of the UDT detachment on board Hornet for the recovery of Apollo 11, was initially a member of SEAL Team One. After a deployment to Vietnam, he joined UDT-12 for the Apollo 11 recovery. Bucklew took the 'splashdown photo', which depicted the moment that Apollo 11 hit the water upon return to earth. The photo is included in the book, Moon Men Return. It was not uncommon during the late 60's for UDT frogmen and SEAL Team members to transfer between units. Frogmen who served in close proximity to their SEAL buddies in Vietnam occasionally joined their SEAL buddies on missions. Very special men. Extraordinary. If Frogman 148 served with the Teams, my hat is off to you. And, thanks for your service.
Cynicism and ignorance masquerading as wisdom.
Allow me to translate for Mr. Russell:
I spend too much time by myself. I can't distinguish between the truth and what I want the truth to be. I'm a danger to myself and my country.
And every one of the hundreds of thousands of people involved with the launch and recovery of those missions has kept completely silent about the hoax for 43 years. Sure.
I don't think that today we could even begin to meet the kind of challenge we did, back when we started with Wehrner VonBraun's engine technology(good thing we got him!)and in ten short years developed the largest liquid-fueled rocket engine that has ever been made. Just five of them took that 6-million pound Apollo vehicle froma standing start to 6,800 mph in just two and a half minutes. I just can't see that happening today, what with EPA, govenrnment, and greed considerations considered. Don't think we could ever build Hoover Dam again, either...
Interesting ideological tea party comment. You do realize NASA is the government, right?
With the pittance Nasa receives out of the US budget (a pittance people who don't know better STILL complain is too much), NASA certainly couldn't pull the same thing off again. It'd take a space race of the same kind as before, for NASA to receive decent funding – a space race with high enough stakes to make the risks acceptable too.
NASA receives just half a penny from each dollar of your taxes, even though if you look at NASAs history, and the offshoot technologies that have their origins in the space missions, out of government programs, NASAs return on the money has been phenomenal. Any other program that did that well, would see an increase in financing, but because people forget the benefits of such cutting edge exploration and research, and lacking that information think that it is pointless, NASA is likely to remain underapeciated, and underfunded.
all you said are some personal attacks, with no evidence and no facts. If you think the whole thing was a fraud, you gotta prove it (which you can't), not make insults against people.
He'd also need to have the requisite education to understand that facts, which eliminates any possibility of that happening either. The whole moon hoax thing has been destroyed time after time for anyone who cares to look and can understand a bit of science.
Sad to see that even one of these were an anti-War protestor.
The cancer permeated everywhere. Sickening.
War is very bad, don't get me wrong, but the US anti-war movement is communists pushing for our defeat under the guise of Peace.
what article were you reading? Where does it say anything about protesters?
War is the cancer, the lack of understanding, is sickening!
Get a grip – thats the biggest load of Ancient Right Wing Propaganda to ever see the light of day.
Yo, daddy-o, like man, that's such a negative vibe. When did you awaken from your 1960's time capsule with your 1960's right wing logic?
In my experience the only people who are in favor of war are those who have never fought in one.
"Dulce bellum inexpertis" War is only sweet to the inexperienced. -Erasmus (or Pindar, according to some)
this the American I remember as a boy. it seems then while there were political differences there was also something like the Apollo missions that transcended all and bound us as Americans. boy, could we ever use today heroes like the astronauts and the SEALS depicted in this story.
I have been a space geek and Star Trekie all my life and clearly remember watching the Apollo program unfold as a child. By the third grade (1966ish) I knew more about the planets, rockets, etc than my teacher. When Walter "Concrete" (actually its Cronkite but for me his version of the news was always the hardrock truth) teared up live on CBS my eyes were wet with emotion too! But that just like this is History and it took many $Billions -several percent of the entire US GDP- to make it happen. Today we have seen Burt Rutan / Paul Allen's Space Ship One best the X15 and Elon Musk / SpaceX's Dragon (seven person Man Rated Capsule!) dock with the Space Station and then splash down on a shoe string. NASA/Apollo were great achievements just like the first transcontinental railroad(s) but there is such a thing we call progress. In the next year or so folks with $200,000 will get to go into space and it is only a question of time before the reduced coach fare ticket prices to Mars come within reach.
Well said, Gerhard.
I too am a trekker (trekkie to some) and I envy those who were alive to see & remember this. I was only 2 and I'm told I sat on my Daddy's lap as my parents watched the Apollo 11 moon landing. I love hearing stories of NASA and all of their missions. I wish we had something this exciting going on today at NASA but everyone seems to think that space is a waste. Space is our future and I hope we wake and realize it soon.
I went AWOL from the Army so I could stay home a few more days to watch them land on the moon. I had orders to go to Nam and my Dad said they wont do a thing to you, you have your orders so I stayed home an extra 3 days and he was right when I reported to Ft Lewis they just looked at me and put me on the next flight to the Philippines. I got to watch it live with the rest of the world
Cool story =)
Amazing story! Great read! I'm not sure where our priorities are as a nation anymore, but during this majestic period of time I can only imagine the pride and awe people shared around the country and world for that matter.
As kids there were so many aspects of the moon missions that we took for granted. Reading of their adventures today seems so much more real and one can better appreciate the true effort and heroism that took place.
John is an awesome guy with an awesome story. He is a hero in so many ways. After having served in the Viet Nam war, he is still returning to minister to the people in a manner that goes far past patriotism and into the true heart of who he really is. I agree with the poster above–his story is a glimmer of hope in the darkness of the tragedies that surround us. For more info re: him, go to http://www.johnwolfram.com.
The guy is delusional. Instead of trying to understand other cultures and coexist with them, he goes over there and tries to push his belief in ancient mythology and ignorant superst!tions on them. To try and make them believe like he does. They have their own ancient mythology, but do they come over here and try to push it on us? No. Missionaries have to be the most misguided, ignorant people on Earth.
Another atheist who doesn't have anything good to say, especially when it's about someone who's done far more positive with his life than himself!
Kudos, Rev. Wolfram on your careers with the Navy, NASA, and for the Lord; keep up the great work.
As children in gradeschool we watched the Apollo missions in Canada. God Bless America then and now for having the guts and the intelligence to plan these space missions. The detail is amazing for every unit measure of civilization.
The astronauts got all the attention, but the moon landings were the sum total of many people doing extraordinary things. Some day I hope to see us regain that level of vision to inspire forward once again.
Google "lunar reconnaissance Apollo 11". They have photos of all the landing sights from very low orbit.
Fantastic story and a great reminder of the heroism that is out there...as well as all of the incredible people who were needed to make this all possible. Thanks!
I know John Wolfram. He visited our church and told us all about his life and conversion and becoming a Missionary. Served our country well and is part of history. He is a great man!!!
Refreshing story to counter the hell in Aurora.
I put together my own tribute blog to the Apollo program. Feel free to check it out by clicking my name.
Real original there pal. Continue with your head in the sand.
don't forget to put on your tin foil hat too!
Nice hat. What brand of foil do you use?
How is knocking the great accomplishments of others working to cover the inner emptiness of your total failure?
Anyway, say hi to your mom next time she comes down to the basement.
I suspect that even if you were intellectually and physically capable of participating in the space program you would have been flushed because your insane. What is most disturbing is that given your penchant for fantasy you have the right to vote...
Really? Do you know how many good, hard-working people you insult with this crap? It's more than you can count on your fingers and toes, which is probably as high as you can go, mathematically. I suppose you also believe the Sun and all the stars and planets revolve around the Earth.
Thanks for the yuks.
Thank you for posting the moon hoax truth.
you are insulting a vast number of hard working NASA, military, and contractor personnel with you lame and paranoid conspiracy theories.
Thank you in advance for removing yourself from the gene pool and the human race.
Well I tend to agree with the "Foil Hats". The government is so compartmentalized the right had doesn't know what he left hand is doing..so the head runs off with it's bum! With that said..these men and woman need to be recognized as the heroes they are! They took the leap into the unknown to perpetuate our society scientifically/spiritually/and as the beings we are. To seek the unknown, to push the boundaries and come up successful, to bask in the joy of something truly phenomenal, a first for man in so many different venues. Hats off to all the TRAIL BLAZERS that live amongst us and that one day we can hear their story. Now I'm putting on my foil hat so please "speak up and out against the Fed." Peace and Light.
So you agree with the commenter that you're responding to, that the moon landings were hoaxes?
Perhaps you ought to see what you are agreeing with before you agree to it.
I believe we did land on the moon.
Why havent we gone back ?
Because of what we found on the other side.
Because there's nothing there worth going back for. It's just a big airless rock.
LOL This drivel has been so thoroughly debunked that only the truly ignorant and delusional still tow this line. Don't worry, it's not your fault, I blame Reagan for helping dismantle the mental health apparatus in this country that served people like you...
Your screen name "crappygovernment" says it all. Is there another country you'd rather live in?
Neil can finally quit lying under duress.
Nice story. On July 20th, 1969, as my mom was in labor in the hospital and watching the first man step onto the moon, she turned to my dad and said, "If it's a boy, let's name him Neil." A boy was born a few hours later and 43 years later, that boy finds himself half a world away and reading about that fateful day the world watched in awe as we reached out to the heavens and tested our grit and drive. Here's to all those folks who had a hand in that great feat – from the engineers to the techs and from the astronauts to the SEALs who pulled them home. I thank and salute you all!
Happy Birthday, Neil!
Happy 43 year-young birthday my friend! I was ten when I watch all this unfold from home in Cd. Obregón, Sonora, México. Such great memories!
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