Sailors, Ships, and Splashdowns

I’ve been posting a lot about landing methods – NASA’s use of splashdowns, why the method was not a long-term solution to the problem of returning from space, and a comparison to Soviet methods. The former, splashdowns, have been a focus of a number of posts. I have previously focussed on the complexity of splashdowns and the significant resources involved as driving force behind NASA’s pursuit of land landing methods with its second-generation manned spaceflight program. But this only tells half the story. A look at the numbers of men and ships involved offers a different illustration of the reasons to pursue a land landing method. (Pictured: The crew of the USS Champlain cheer on Alan Shepard following his Freedom 7 splashdown, 1961.)

When NASA began its first manned Mercury program, splashdowns were selected as the landing method for simplicity’s sake. Dropping a blunt body spacecraft in the ocean is a lot easier than making it land on a runway (for a more complete look at the reasons behind the splashdown decision, click here).

Splashdown and recovery (of both the astronaut and the spacecraft) was the final phase of a mission and consisted of three stages. The first was location, either visually or by following the signal from the radar beacon on the spacecraft. The second stage was on the spot assistance when Navy SEALS would assist the astronaut in exiting the spacecraft. The final stage was recovery, returning both the astronaut and spacecraft to NASA. (To the right, Navy SEALS assist Dave Scott and Neil Armstrong following their Gemini 8 mission. 1966.)

Like the method of splashdowns landings, NASA had to invent the procedures by which to retrieve and recover their astronauts and spacecrafts as they went along – the organization had no prior experience on which to build and very little time to work out the details. These two features – a lack of both experience and time – contributed to the substantial forces NASA employed for the recovery of its Mercury astronauts. It needed to be prepared for as many scenarios as possible, which meant having the means to react to any situation on any part of the globe.

One problem in predicting the location of a splashdown is the precision required in initiating the retrofire sequence. Any delay in retrofire – even a delay of a second – can translate to a splashdown hundreds of miles outside the primary recovery zone. Multiple ships on hand during splashdown can ensure recovery of a spacecraft missing the primary zone.

Another difficulty in organizing recovery forces for the Mercury splashdowns was the orbital pattern of the spacecraft relative to the Earth – this wasn’t really an issue during Al Shepard and Gus Grissom’s initial suborbital flights. The Earth rotates, this is no surprise, but the effect of this on tracking networks is that the position of a tracking station must move to reflect the changing path of the spacecraft relative to the earth as it orbits. (Pictured: Mission control during Wally Schirra’s Sigma 7 orbital flight. The display at the front of the room displays the orbital tracking of the spacecraft. Each line represents one orbit and clearly illustrates how the position of the spacecraft moves relative to the Earth. It’s easy to imagine how tracking such a mission would be difficult to orchestrate. 1962.)

To create the worldwide tracking network NASA needed to keep in touch with the spacecraft, they enlisted the help of the Department of Defence as well as the good will of foreign nations. The DOD provided the Naval resources, the ships and bases that could be used to support the fledgling space program in the interest of national supremacy. In addition to the home resources, the US secured the right to set up tracking stations in Woomera (Australia), the Canton Islands and Bermuda (United Kingdom), Tungn and Chawaka (Nigeria), and the Canary Islands (Spain).

The same tracking network was instrumental in the recovery portion of the mission. The spacecraft could abort at any time, changing the prospective splashdown site. A minor deviation from planned retrofire manoeuvres could also translate into a deviation from a planned splashdown point. NASA needed constant coverage of its spacecraft to ensure the safe and quick recovery of its astronauts.

The complicated tracking system manifested itself as an impressive array of ships spread out across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the event of an orbital mission – suborbital missions had recovery forces on hand in the Atlantic alone; the spacecraft couldn’t travel very far in fifteen minutes.

For John Glenn’s 20 February 1962 orbital flight, NASA’s first, 24 ships (23 in the Atlantic, 1 in the Pacific) were on hand for the recovery stage – 14 Destroyers, 2 Carriers, 1 Salvage ship, 2 ocean Minesweepers, 1 Frigate, 1 Anti-sub Destroyer, 1 Radar Picket Destroyer, and 1 Oiler. A more impressive way to look at this is to look at how many men made up the crews on these 24 ships. (Pictures is the recovery of Gordon Cooper’s Faith 7 spacecraft. 1963.)

A consideration of an estimated crew size on these different types of ships puts the recovery forces into a better perspective. Carriers, such as the USS Randolph that was Glenn’s primary recovery ship, had a crew of 1615 men – 115 officers and 1500 enlisted men. Destroyers, in the case of Glenn’s recovery included the USS Barry and the USS Blandy, had crews of 304 – 17 officers and 287 enlisted men.  Salvage ships had much smaller crews; in this case the USS Recovery had a crew of 83, 6 officers and 77 enlisted men. Submarines such as the USS Norfolk brought 127 men into the mix with 12 officers and 115 enlisted men.

A rough estimate of the men that made up the crews on all 24 ships involved in Glenn’s recovery comes to over 8,000. 8,000 men were on hand to recover one man, and this figure includes only the crews of the ships in the various recovery zones. This does not include the Marine helicopters that actually hoisted the astronaut and capsule out of the water, nor the men stationed at the various bases that constituted the world wide tracking networks, nor the men in mission control.

The crew of the USS Kearsarge, the carrier and prime recovery ship of Wally Schirra's Sigma 7 flight. 1962.

In the grand scheme of the Navy, 24 ships and 8,000 men is not extraordinary; at its peak at the end of the Second World War, the US Navy was operating close to 7,000 ships. But 8,000 men considered in the context of a single splashdown is much more striking. Glenn was, after all, a seasoned and decorated pilot who could likely have landed any airborne aerodynamic body.  Had the Mercury capsule been a glider, Glenn could probably have landed it on the National Mall in front of the Washington Monument without compromising the wellbeing of a single spectator.

In choosing the blunt body approach, NASA trusted that the Navy would be on hand, ready and willing to aid the organization in splashdowns for as long as it may need assistance. And the Navy delivered. The arrangement does bring up an additional question: The cost in terms of manpower is evident, but how much is the monetary cost of running 24 ships for three days? As the missions got longer, in the case of Mercury Gordon Cooper’s orbital flight aboard Faith 7 was the longest at a little over 30 hours, the ships had to be on hand longer. The recovery forces headed for their designated recovery zones well in advance of launch and returned only after the astronaut and spacecraft was returned safely to NASA.

Glenn’s flight was not outlandish in its use of Naval forces for the recovery. Shepard’s and Grissom’s suborbital mission required understandably fewer ships; the flights lasted less than 15 minutes and employed 10 and 8 ships respectively. Carpenter’s, Schirra’s and Cooper’s subsequent orbital missions, however, made use of substantial recovery forces similar to Glenn’s flight.

Carpenter’s 24 May 1962 Aurora 7 flight had 22 ships on hand for recovery. Schirra’s 3 October 1962 Sigma 7 mission had the largest recovery force of any Mercury mission (or Gemini and Apollo mission for that matter) with 27 ships. Cooper’s Faith 7, the last Mercury flight, matched Glenn’s recovery forces with 24 ships. In all cases, the recovery forces were a mix of carriers, destroyers, oilers, and frigates spread across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

In light of the complexity of tracking and monitoring orbital space flight compounded with the unpredictable nature of splashdowns, the amount of recovery forces is not particularly outlandish. But certainly, having to employ 8,000 fewer men per mission would be a strong factor inciting NASA to move away from splashdowns as a long-term method of returning from space.

Suggested Reading/Selected Sources

Blair, Don. Splashdown! NASA and the Navy.

Carpenter, et al. We Seven. Simon and Schuster, 1962.

USS Randolph, Essex aircraft carrier:

USS Lake Champlain, Essex aircraft carrier:

USS Blandy, Forrest Sherman Destroyer:

USS Recovery, Bolster salvage and rescue ship:

USS Norfolk, Los Angeles submarine:

USS Goodrich, Gearing destroyer:


10 thoughts on “Sailors, Ships, and Splashdowns

  1. Interesting stuff. Thanks for writing this; I watched the first moonwalk on live TV, and this brings back memories.

    The aircraft carrier USS Hornet was the prime “recovery ship” for the first two moon landing missions (Apollo 11 and 12). Immediately after the Apollo 12 mission, the Hornet was decommissioned (retired). Built during WWII, she was too small and too old to be useful to the jet-powered Navy any longer. She spent 25 years “parked” in the Navy’s “mothball fleet,” and was finally scheduled to be scrapped in 1995. By coincidence, her old home port, Alameda Naval Air Station near San Francisco, was also scheduled to close in 1995. As part of the base-closing ceremonies, the final base commander temporarily diverted the Hornet on her way to her scrapyard destination nearby, had her docked at her old homeport pier, and opened up her flight deck for tours. Enough interest was generated to buy the ship back from the scrappers and turn her into a museum. Large parts of the Hornet have now been restored, and the staff have accumulated a remarkable collection of Apollo artifacts. If you ever find yourself in the Bay Area, come visit!

    1. I’ve tried to see what came of some of the Mercury recovery carriers but never got as far as USS Hornet. I’m pleased to know that the ship has avoided the scrap yard. It’s nice to see important historical artifacts preserved, and nice to have another museum destination on my list. I will certainly keep that one in mind since I’m pretty close to the West coast these days.
      Thanks so much for reading!

  2. Asteitel
    So this may be a reach but, my grandfather was on the USS Lake Champlain and I have many photos of the splashdown and recovery of Alan B Sheaperd. My grandfather passed away when I was 2 years old and I am 25 now. I have been searching for clues to life on board and anyone who may have known him so if you happen to know anyone else I could connect with that was there for the splashdown I would be very greatful for the connection. Thank you so much for your time. Take care and best of luck with your research!

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