Wyo. veteran recounts Apollo 8 recovery mission
The Laramie (Wyo.) Boomerang/AP
LARAMIE, Wyo. — Bill Montgomery planned to go on his honeymoon, but instead shipped out to the North Pacific.
It was the winter of 1968, and Montgomery was enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
Although his honeymoon didn't go as planned, Montgomery said the orders he received to board the U.S.S. Yorktown CV-10, an Essex-class aircraft carrier, and partake in the mission to recover the first Americans to orbit the moon sent him on one of the greatest adventures of his life.
Friday marked the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 8 recovery mission.
Earlier this month, Montgomery, a Laramie resident, made a presentation of his experience at the Veterans Coffee Discussion Group, hosted every Friday at the Eppson Center for Seniors.
Montgomery's job aboard the ship was to man the ARC-52 radios, part of the data link between the Apollo 8 crew, the Yorktown and NASA.
Prior to the actual event, Montgomery said crews practiced recovering the astronauts using a dummy capsule.
"We'd go out there and drop this thing in the ocean and pretend like it was the Apollo 8 capsule and recover it," he said. "We did it three times in the daytime and three times in the dark."
During one such practice, Montgomery said seas were turbulent, with swells rising 15 feet along the ship's hull.
"A crane went down with the Navy (Underwater Demolition Team) guys," Montgomery said. "They hooked the cables up and pulled it out of those 15-foot seas while the ship was rocking. I'm watching that thinking, 'Man, I'm glad there aren't any people inside of that.'"
Montgomery slept in the top bunk beneath a large number 10 that was painted on the carrier's flight deck.
Pilots often aimed for the 10 when landing, pounding into the runway and catching the arresting cables, which screeched and twanged across the deck.
"The bottom of the flight deck was about two feet above my chest, and the deck was about one and a half feet thick," Montgomery said. "That seems like a lot of protection, until you have a 30-ton A-3 Skywarrior airplane slam down on the deck about four feet from your chest."
His bunk would often jolt upon impact.
Montgomery said the Yorktown crew celebrated Christmas 1968 while waiting for the Apollo 8 capsule to return to Earth.
The lunar orbital mission was slated to take six days.
With training and a series of delayed launches, Montgomery was deployed at sea for about six weeks.
The mission launched Dec. 21, and the astronauts orbited the moon 10 times, becoming the first humans to see and photograph "earthrise" — a glimpse of the earth rising over the moon.
On the return, Montgomery said the capsule entered the ionosphere at 18,000 miles per hour.
"That thing is humming," he said. "I mean, it is smoking. Literally. And as it hits the ionosphere, it has to hit it at the right angle, or else it either plummets into the earth or bounces off. Then you've got to try to make another approach."
He described the capsule as a large pellet shot from an air gun, with the flat part facing downward.
"That's where all the heat-resistant material is," he said. "So it comes down in the atmosphere, the ionosphere, stratosphere and all of that stuff, and it slows down to about 126 miles per hour. That's terminal velocity. And then it deploys drogue chutes and splashes into the water."
The drogue chutes, similar to parachutes, were vital to the safe recovery, Montgomery said.
"If those drogue chutes failed, the earth did actually succeed in stopping the capsule," he said. "But sometimes they'd have some really flat (astronauts) in there afterwards."
The capsule plunged into the Pacific the night of Dec. 17.
Montgomery said he watched from the Yorktown's deck.
Helicopters with Navy Underwater Demolition Team members, also known as frogmen, dispatched to the capsule.
"The Navy UDT guys helped the astronauts open the capsule and get them into the raft, which was then hauled to the Yorktown deck," he said.
Before the astronauts were flown from the Yorktown, Montgomery and crewmembers formed a line to meet them.
Standing in admiration before Apollo 8 Mission Commander Frank Borman, Montgomery lifted his camera to take a photograph and realized it wasn't set up.
"I uttered some words I learned in the Navy," Montgomery said.
Borman paused for Montgomery to set up his camera and snap a few photos.
Then the astronauts loaded onto the plane and flew away.
"Looking back on it, I wouldn't have missed it for the world," Montgomery said of the mission.
Information from: Laramie Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com
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