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Helping Apollo 11 make a big splash
Local man helped recover Apollo 11 capsule

 Wes Chesser (at left on capsule, with a red radio hanging from his waist) joins other Navy frogmen in recovering the Apollo 11 space capsule after it splashed down from its historic moon landing 40 years ago.
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RELATED: Area residents share moon-landing memories

Date published: 7/19/2009


Wes Chesser figures he and his dive mates spent about 90 minutes bobbing in the ocean, tethered to the Apollo 11 space capsule after it splashed down in the Pacific on July 24, 1969.

The spacecraft's astronauts had already been whisked away to the nearby USS Hornet, where they were meeting with President Nixon, albeit behind a barrier so they didn't expose the president to "moon germs."

Chesser, part of the Navy team responsible for retrieving Apollo 11, had to wait in the water until the president flew off.

"I don't remember this, but somebody said we did play 'King of the Spacecraft,'" Chesser recalled of the long wait in choppy seas.

And how exactly is that game played?

"Whoever can stay on the longest wins."

A resident of Stafford County for nearly 25 years, Chesser participated in the sea rescues of Apollo missions 6, 10 and 11, the last of which landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Chesser, 64, said he was training so hard for the capsule recovery that he barely remembers watching that historic moment 40 years ago.

"We had to do day rehearsals, night rehearsals, rough-weather rehearsals, smooth-weather rehearsals, you name it," said Chesser, who was stationed in Coronado, Calif., at the time. "We knew we could do it in any type of weather."

The return of Apollo 10 in May 1969 had been "picture perfect," recalled Chesser, who was seated in a chopper when he spotted that capsule burning through the earth's atmosphere "like a comet" before splashing into the Pacific.

After dropping into the ocean and attaching a sea anchor and a floatation collar to the capsule, he and the other divers helped pull astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan out of the spacecraft and into a raft.

But the water was much rougher when Apollo 11 splashed down two months later, Chesser recalled. And NASA's fear of "moon germs" meant that only one diver was allowed near the astronauts--and only after they'd all donned "Biological Isolation Garments."

So Chesser and two others waited patiently in a raft upwind of the capsule while Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were scrubbed down. As the astronauts were hauled into a helicopter for the short flight to the Hornet, Chesser swam nearby in case anyone fell into the water.

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We had moved from Indianapolis to Needham, Mass., in 1964. On June 20, 1969, my father-in-law, 11-year-old son Kris and I were in the right field grandstand at Fenway Park in Boston at the moment of the landing. They stopped the game and put the radio broadcast on the PA systGem for the moment when Neil Armstrong stepped into history.

—Howard Harman, Spotsylvania

We lived in a small town in western Nebraska where we were lucky we had TV reception to see the landing. In planning for the big event—believe me, it was a big event—the first thing we said was we will always remember where we were on this day and we won’t forget each other.

I remember praying that I hope when the module comes out from the dark side of the moon, the astronauts would be safe. And what goosebumps I had when Neil Armstrong stepped out of the module and set foot on the moon. We jumped for joy, hugged each other and again said we will never forget this day. I hope our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will get to have the same feeling when we go back to the moon and ultimately to Mars!

—Marilynn Heitman, Stafford

Where I was while watching the first moon landing wasn’t too exciting—in the living room of my parents’ home in Manassas—but at age 16, I was so thrilled by the telecast. I had my Bell & Howell Super 8 movie camera filming the whole thing in those dark days before home video machines. I realize now just how special those few manned lunar landings were since the last one took place back in 1972.

—Charlie Young, Spotsylvania

My interest was higher than most. I was an electronics engineer employed by Univac Bristol, which had the contract to design and build the cabin fan for the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). The cabin fan was mission critical because it circulated the oxygen in the module.

I was one of the three engineers who designed the fan. My responsibility was reliability of the design. The cabin fans were delivered to NASA and installed on the LEMs. I never doubted they would work.

I enjoy telling my grandchildren about my part in the Apollo program and showing them the LEM at the Air and Space Museum.

—Harry Lewis, Stafford

The summer of 1969, Fitz Johnson and I were attending summer school at the University of Richmond. Both of us grew up in Fredericksburg and have been friends since the first grade.

On July 20, 1969, we sat in the living room of our off-campus apartment and watched the moon landing on a 19-inch black and white TV and invited some friends over for a “moon-landing” party. We were completely awestruck by what we were experiencing. It was amazing to us that we were watching on TV what prior to that date we had only read about or seen at the movies.

—Ken Whitescarver, Fredericksburg

My family lived in Chester, Va., and I was 16 years old as I and my parents and two younger brothers gathered in front of the only television in the house (in the only room in the house with A/C) to watch the historic moment. Not long before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon’s surface, our 18-year-old next door neighbor came running over to watch with us, as she was so excited that she couldn’t sit at home to watch.

We were quiet at the actual moment and then elated as the famous steps and words were recorded forever in our minds. I remember going outside to look for the moon, trying to imagine being up there.

Mary Anne Lowery, Spotsylvania