by Peter Jakey–Managing Editor
When the USS Hornet picked up astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins from the Pacific Ocean following the first lunar landing, on July 24, 1969, the crew welcomed them aboard with buttons that read “Hornet Plus Three.”
It is the 45th anniversary of what Armstrong famously described as “one giant leap for mankind.”
Many Americans will never forget where they were when two American astronauts walked on the moon for the first time.
Mark E. Baller, a proud Navy veteran from Rogers City, will not forget where he was when they came back to Earth. He was on the deck of the Hornet with a front row seat to history, watching the lunar module’s ascent through the atmosphere and the splash down into the Pacific Ocean.
Baller was part of the crew, whose job was to recover the astronauts.
“Everybody was looking up in the sky waiting for it to come down,” said Baller. “All of a sudden somebody hollered, ‘here it comes!’ Helicopters went out and picked the guys up.”
President Richard M. Nixon was on board to welcome the returning astronauts back, where they lived in quarantine, inside the Mobile Quarantine Facility.
“We saw the astronauts in their quarantine huts,” recalls Baller. “We could see them, but we could not talk to them. We got within 30 or 40 feet.”
Not bad for a Belknap Township farmhand, who did get through the 10th-grade because the principal said he was tired of seeing Baller in his office. “I was tired of going up there.”
He went to work in the fields picking potatoes, or any other assortment of jobs.
The country was embroiled in the Vietnam conflict and Baller decided the next step in his young life would be to enlist in the Navy. He was shipped out to San Diego, California for boot camp, starting what would be a 10-year sailing career.
The Hornet’s crew was briefed about their recovery mission and left Long Beach, California three to four weeks before. Baller was a boiler technician second class and played a part in making sure the Navy was not tardy for their historic appointment.
“We operated the main plant,” said Baller of his role. “We made the steam and then sent it to the main engine, and that’s what propelled the ship.”
On July 16, Apollo 11 launched from Florida. At that time, Hornet was about 1,600 miles southwest of Hawaii at the Primary Launch Abort Area. If the astronauts had to make an emergency landing in the Pacific before leaving Earth’s atmosphere this was the location.
The crew could hear the launch broadcast over the ship’s radio and knew they were underway. The Hornet then sailed north to the primary recovery site, 1,200 miles southwest of Hawaii. For the next week, practice recoveries continued, each day, starting before dawn and lasting through early evening in all kinds of weather. During this time frame, 16 or 17 training recoveries were completed.
Poor weather conditions and rough seas forced the Navy and NASA to move the splashdown site to another location 250 miles from the storm. The Hornet steamed full speed to the new location 950 miles southwest of Hawaii. A few of the crew wondered if they would be late.
It was not – and an anxious nation watched as the crew performed their jobs perfectly. It was a great moment for the country, as well as the Navy.
“I joined the Navy to do a job and that was part of my job,” said Baller. He also served in Vietnam in 1970, along the coast.
The Hornet is now a maritme museum in Alameda, California and Saturday, Aldrin and members of the recovery team will celebrate the 45th anniversary.
Closer to home, much of the celebrating took place last weekend at the Posen Community Center as Baller watched the marriage of a grandson. Another first to be remembered.