Nearly 44 years ago, the crew of Apollo 8 earned a place in history as the first men to leave Earth orbit, reach the Earth’s moon, orbit it and return safely to Earth. Many know the names of the heroes who manned the crew – Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders – but few know of the special role the USS Yorktown played in this historic mission.
As the carrier selected to recover the crew and capsule following their splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, the Yorktown and her crew were on standby in the early morning hours of December 27, 1968. Hundreds of the 1,650-man crew saw the re-entry of the spacecraft, traveling at seven miles per second through the re-entry zone at 4:52 HST and splashing down only 2 ½ miles away from the carrier.
The USS Yorktown’s helicopters were quick to respond, picking up the astronauts and delivering them safely to the flight deck of the Yorktown shortly after their re-entry.
One member of the Yorktown crew, AW-2 James B. Dorsey, operated the hoist during the recovery of Apollo 8. During a recent visit to Patriots Point, he recalled the excitement of their arrival following months of preparation.
The “Fighting Lady” gave the Apollo 8 crew a hero’s welcome aboard the Flight Deck and later hosted a celebration in the Hangar Bay, complete with a 540-lb. (seven feet long by three feet wide) cake. The Yorktown brought the silver-gold colored space capsule back to Hawaii on December 29.
Today, visitors to the USS Yorktown walk in the steps of these heroes. They can visit the same sickbay where Dr. Clarance Jernigan and the 17-man NASA medical team conducted tests to confirm the health of the astronauts following their six-day mission; sit at tables in the Wardroom, where they enjoyed a formal dinner with Capt. Fitfield and the officers of the “Fighting Lady;” and dine in the Chief’s Mess where they ate brunch before departing for home.
In addition, visitors to Patriots Point can view a piece of the Apollo 8 heat shield that was recovered by Yorktown crewmember Dan Bernath as well as a full-size replica of the space capsule. Visitors can also see AW-2 Dorsey’s name on the side of the H-3 helicopter – a tribute to his role in the recovery of the Apollo 8 capsule.
“At the core of our mission is a commitment to recognize and honor the patriotism of all the servicemen and women who have served our nation throughout its history,” said Patriots Point Executive Director Mac Burdette. “We are proud of the USS Yorktown’s involvement in such a historic moment in our nation’s history, and honored to share it with our visitors each day. These brave astronauts risked everything to keep our nation at the forefront of technology and space exploration. Their efforts contributed immeasurably to the United States winning the Cold War.”