The Apollo 11 Astronauts Return Home, Heroes!
On July 24, the astronauts returned home aboard the command module Columbia just before dawn in the Pacific Ocean 2,660 km (1,440 nm) east of Wake Island, or 380 km (210 nm) south of Johnston Atoll, and 24 km (15 mi) from the recovery ship, USS Hornet.
Initially the command module landed upside down but was righted in several minutes by flotation bags triggered by the astronauts. The first NAVY diver from the helicopter hovering above attached an anchor to the command module to prevent it from drifting. Additional divers attached additional flotation collars to stabilize the the module and position rafts for astronaut extraction. Though the possibility of bringing back pathogen from the lunar surface was considered remote, it was not considered impossible and NASA took great precautions at the recovery site. Astronauts were provided Biological Isolation Garment (BIG suit) by divers which were worn until they reached issolation facilities onboard the Hornet. Additionally astronauts were rubbed down with a sodium-hypochlorite solution and the command module wipped with betadine to remove any lunar dust that might be present. The raft containing decontamination materials was then intentionally sunk.
A second Sea King helicopter hoisted the astronauts aboard one by one where a NASA flight surgeon gave each a brief physical check during the half mile trip back to the Hornet. After touchdown on the Hornet, all crew existed the helicopter, leaving the flight surgeon and 3 crew. The helicopter was then lowered into hangar bay #2 where the astronauts walked the 30 feet to the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) where they would begin their 21 days of quarantine, a practice that continue for the next 3 Apollo missions before the moon was proven to be barren of life and quarantine process dropped for Apollo XV through XVII.
President Richard Nixon was aboard the Hornet to personally welcome the astronauts back to Earth. He told the astronauts: “As a result of what you’ve done, the world has never been closer together before.” Years later, it was publicly revealed that Nixon had prepared a speech to be given if the mission resulted in death. The lunar module had not been tested to assess if it could launch from the moon surface. After Nixon departed, the Hornet was brought alongside the 5 ton command module where it was placed abord by the ships crane, placed on a dolly and moved next to the MQF. The Hornet steamed for Pearl Harbor where the command module and MQF were airlifed to the Johnson Space Center.