After Neil Armstrong died last weekend, millions of Americans remembered where they were and what they were doing when a man took the first steps on the moon.
Jeffrey Buckingham of Lakewood has a story with which few others can compare – the story of a front-row seat to history. In July 1969, he was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, waiting for Armstrong and the other astronauts of Apollo 11 to fall from the sky.
Buckingham, 65, had a career of more than 20 years in the U.S. Navy, with much of the early part spent aboard the USS Hornet – the aircraft carrier that recovered Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins after their historic journey to the moon.
“This is a dream,’” Buckingham said he remembered thinking to himself. “The crew was very excited.”
Buckingham was 22 at the time the Hornet and its crew of 6,000 sailors left Long Beach, Calif., two weeks before the astronauts returned from space. During that wait, the helicopter pilots and divers practiced retrieving the module from the ocean – over and over again.
The crew of the Hornet also had to make sure the ship was fit to host a pair of high-profile guests: President Richard Nixon and Adm. John McCain, father of the former naval aviator and current U.S. senator. Buckingham said a whole lot of cleaning and painting went into the ship to make sure it was worthy of hosting passengers of that caliber.
“Got to make sure everything looks pretty,” he said.
Buckingham was not involved in the recovery of the module. At the time, he was an aviation storekeeper, in charge of aircraft parts. But he was lucky enough to be in a position to watch as the module splashed down several miles from the vessel early the morning of July 24.
“First you hear a boom, a sonic boom, then you see the parachutes,” Buckingham said. “I was in the right place at the right time.”
Once Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were aboard the Hornet, they were immediately quarantined inside two Streamline trailers as a precaution against the possibility they had brought back lunar germs. It was in the trailers that Nixon congratulated the crew of Apollo 11.
“That’s the first time anybody’s gone to the moon, they’re not going to take any chances on their health,” Buckingham said.
The astronauts were quarantined 21 days, but Buckingham said he remembers venturing down to the hangar bay late at night, when most of the Hornet’s crew was sleeping, to watch Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins move things from one trailer to another.
Buckingham was also on board the Hornet later that year for the recovery of the Apollo 12 astronaut crew.
He retired from the Navy in 1987 and went to work as an aircraft inspector for The Boeing Company. He retired in 2009 and lives in Lakewood with his wife, Eileen.
Looking back on his experience in the wake of Armstrong’s Aug. 25 death, Buckingham compared the astronaut’s accomplishments to Christopher Columbus – a pioneer who wasn’t afraid to attempt the impossible.
“He was the first,” Buckingham said. “He landed on the moon. Nobody had ever done that.”