The Homecoming

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Anxiety abated. Now there was time to get the drop of the multipackage flotation collar just right. Soon the orange water wings were attached, and the astronauts could open the hatches to breathe fresh air again. 1 could see their smiling faces as we exchanged waves and thumbs-up signals.

It’s still vivid in my memory: the world’s most advanced spacecraft, now a helpless bobbing thing afloat in a beautifully blue, trackless sea, shepherded by a flying antique. The incongruity wasn’t lost on Armstrong either. To him it was the “most unusual rendezvous in aviation history.”

For the next several hours the scene changed hardly at all. The tiny colony of astronauts and rescue swimmers simply waited for the USS Mason while Naha Rescue One circled slowly overhead, directing the approaching vessel to the pickup, and watched.

The slim gray destroyer seemed something of an intruder, creating a planned but profound change in the small group whose lives had been so intensely enmeshed for several hours. After many months of rescue missions and dozens of successful rescues, only part of the Naha Rescue One team returned to regular duty at the home base in Guam. With the Gemini crew, the swimmers were swept up by an anxiously waiting American public to be endlessly feted and interviewed about the unusual rescue. The entire group has never been reassembled.

Later, as a NASA guest, I watched the launch of Armstrong’s moon mission from a VIP’s vantage. Through the years we have exchanged letters and even telephone calls, but a hundred or so feet in the open Pacific is as close as I’ve ever been to shaking hands with Neil Armstrong.

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