Historic Moon Journey ended in Islands
By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer
When the Apollo 11 astronauts returned to Earth 40 years ago today, their first destination was Pearl Harbor — a fact history books tend to overlook.
Most accounts of man's historic first moon landing has the returning space men splashing down in the Pacific, being safely recovered, and getting whisked by plane to Houston for debriefing.
But between the recovery 812 nautical miles southwest of Hawai'i and the debriefing, the Apollo 11 crew — Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin — were placed in quarantine aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet as a way of protecting the planet from the possibility of space germs (unnecessarily, it turned out), and then taken to O'ahu.
Sealed inside a special Airstream Mobile Quarantine Facility, the astronauts reached Pearl Harbor on July 27, where they were greeted by 25,000 cheering fans. Through the sound system in their airtight trailer they listened to welcoming comments from Hawai'i Gov. John Burns and other dignitaries.
Then, after the ceremony, the Airstream was lowered to the dock and hauled by a motorized pallet loader to Hickam Air Force Base — followed by a throng of well-wishers. At Hickam, the trailer was loaded onto an Air force C-141 transport and flown to Texas.
Apollo 11's Hawai'i connection, though brief, remains vivid in the minds of many who where there. When Aldrin visited Hawai'i on the eve of the 35th anniversary of Apollo 11, he remarked how he and his fellow astronauts were startled to gaze out their window on that day in 1969 and see so many joyous people.
"There are really a lot of fond memories coming back to Hawai'i," Aldrin said at the time. "After they picked us up, they brought us into Pearl Harbor. ... We were in quarantine in this little Airstream trailer. We got onto a flatbed and then they had a ceremony between Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field."
Another observer who remembers that day had a unique vantage point from which to witness history. John Hirasaki, along with Apollo flight surgeon William Carpentier, spent the entire 21-day quarantine period in isolation with the three moon men.
"We weren't there (on O'ahu) very long," recalled Hirasaki, speaking from his home in Dickinson, Texas. "But I do remember there were an awful lot of people on the route between where they offloaded us from the Hornet and transported us to Hickam. And the astronauts were amazed by the reception of the public."
Hirasaki was at the time a 28-year-old Apollo project engineer and recovery team member. He was one of four Apollo technicians in line for special duty inside the quarantine station. Each of the four was fully aware that he faced a possible risk of space contamination. That didn't matter.
"We all wanted to do it," Hirasaki said. "So, we drew straws."
Hirasaki got the lucky straw — and that luck has remained a defining moment in his life. His decadeslong career with NASA has been filled with exciting moments of involvement with other Apollo missions and astronauts. Even now, at 68, he contracts with NASA, doing work on support vehicles for the Space Station.
But to have been part of the exclusive, limited audience that personally shook the hands of the first people returning from another celestial body is that rare experience for which there can be no equal.
"That's pretty hard to top," Hirasaki said.
There were light-hearted moments in Hawai'i. The returning astronauts had fun filling out a U.S. Customs form once they reached U.S. soil.
"Well, they did go out of the country, didn't they?" Hirasaki said with a laugh. "And there was some protocol involved because they did import some things from another location."
Thus, it was duly recorded that the three had arrived from the "moon" aboard Flight No. "11," on "July 24, 1969," and "arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A." The question regarding any "condition on board which may lead to the spread of disease" was answered, "To be determined."
The imports included what qualified as the most unique cargo ever hauled to that point: 47 pounds of moon rocks.
The Apollo 11 astronauts had entered the quarantined Airstream trailer though a series of large plastic sheeting tubes big enough to enclose the Command Module, which was also in quarantine. Hirasaki's duties included recovering the precious Moon rocks, then disinfecting the Command Module inside and out.
Those moon rocks had been stored in airtight, vacuum containers while the astronauts were still on the moon. But as a precaution, the first thing Armstrong did after putting his immortal first footprint on the lunar surface was to quickly collect a bag of rocks in case the mission had to be suddenly aborted.
That way the crew wouldn't have had to come home empty-handed.
BAG OF MOON ROCKS
Hirasaki recovered that bag and took it aboard the Airstream where the astronauts, Carpentier and Hirasaki did something no earthlings had ever done before: look at naked moon rocks inside the Earth's atmosphere.
"Well, hey — you had to take a peek, didn't you?" he said, adding that they looked like an ordinary bag of rocks. They did have one quality that wasn't like any ordinary bag of rocks. They smelled rather like gunpowder.
"It's a very distinct smell. It's something that you don't normally run into. It's something like burnt gunpowder."
Hirasaki said he has had limited contact with his Apollo 11 pals since their three-week quarantine period. Last month, he bumped into Aldrin at a Museum of Flight reception, which was celebrating the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. He said the two had an enjoyable, memory-filled conversation.
Four decades after their adventure unfolded, Hirasaki still finds the experience awe-inspiring.
"It's absolutely fascinating when you get into something like that — because nobody had ever done a lot of this stuff before," he said. "So, you have to use a lot of common sense. How do you make something work that has never been done?
"It was, truly, one giant step."