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Rio Vista Man Recalls Retrieving Apollo 11 Capsule from Pacific Ocean

RIO VISTA -- Across the bay from San Francisco in Alameda sits the USS Hornet.

The retired Navy aircraft carrier is now a museum, but 50 years ago, it played an important part in American history.

“We were designated as the recovery ship for Apollo 11,” Rolf Sabye, who was stationed aboard the ship, told FOX40.

The sailors aboard the ship were charged with recovering Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – the astronauts on Apollo 11.

“I came aboard the Hornet in March of 1968, and at that time I was what’s called a quartermaster striker,” Sabye said.

Sabye was just 21 years old at the time, fresh off a nine-month tour to Vietnam. He was part of the crew that navigated the Hornet.

Their mission was to pick up the Apollo service module that the astronauts would be returning to Earth in.

One wrong move could sink the spacecraft, so Sabye and his fellow sailors had to train. Their captain made them run 16 exercise pickups with a mock capsule.

“Bring the ship up next to it, hook it up to the crane and bring it aboard. Drop it off and do it again,” he said.

Then, on July 23, 1969, after practicing all day, the crew was ready to receive Apollo 11, scheduled to land just after sunrise the next day.

But with less than 12 hours to go, bad weather forced the landing to move 250 miles north.

“For us, it was a little bit difficult because in those days we were still navigating especially in the south pacific by shooting stars and sun lines, with a sextant,” Sabye said.

With overcast skies, the sailors had to rely on dead reckoning, which is a very basic navigation of speed, time and direction.

Still, they made it within 10 miles of the landing site -- right where they were supposed to be.

Early that morning, Sabye recalls the arrival of a special guest.

“Here you can see the president stepping onto the helicopter onto the flight deck,” he told FOX40.

President Richard Nixon came aboard to watch Apollo 11 splashdown from the Hornet’s bridge deck.

While Saybe did get to briefly meet the president, he recalls it was Nixon’s breakfast that interested many of his fellow sailors the most.

“It started becoming obvious that the president wasn’t going to come back up to the bridge. And we’re looking at strawberries and bacon and I think one of the fellows took a strawberry, another one took a piece of bacon,” Sabye said.

Luckily for Sabye’s crew, the president never returned.

Soon, it was go time.

“Because we had NASA folks up on the bridge, we were told almost to the second when we would hear the sonic booms of the entry through the atmosphere,” he said.

As the capsule landed in the Pacific, Navy SEALs were deployed to retrieve the astronauts.  The three men were given isolation suits to prevent the spread of potentially harmful materials.

“I mean no one had ever been there before and they didn’t know if there were any kind of germs or anything from the moon,” Sabye said. “So, they were very concerned about that.”

Once the astronauts were safely on board, it was Sabye’s crew's turn to retrieve the capsule, which had moon rocks and other important samples.

They slowly brought the Hornet up alongside the spacecraft.

“Couple of fellows that were operating the crane lowered the big aircraft hook and the seals hooked it onto the top of the capsule and we hoisted it up,” Sabye said.

Sabye says it was not until that capsule was in the hanger bay that he and his men even realized what a historic role they played.

“At that point, our job was done,” he said. “And so that’s when we were really able to think about what had happened.”

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