The risky return of Apollo 11

How did the Apollo 11 get home? Their return could've been a lot worse, as physicist Katie Mack reveals...
23 July 2019

Interview with 

Katie Mack, North Carolina State University


this is a picture of an astronaut doing a space walk


On the 24th of July the crew splashed back down into the Pacific Ocean. They were picked up by the USS Hornet, and quickly moved to spend 21 days in quarantine. Just incase there were any nasty things on the Moon. But things could have gone drastically wrong, as Adam Murphy found out when he spoke to physicist Katie Mack, from North Carolina State University, about the return of the Apollo crew, and her family connection to it...

Katie - So my grandfather - his name was Captain Willard Samuel Houston, he went by Sam Houston - was involved in the Apollo missions. He was a meteorologist with the Navy when Apollo 11 was happening, and his job was to make sure that the splashdown site when the capsule came back to Earth would be okay, the weather would be fine and everything. And there was this amazing story about how he was able to redirect the capsule to a different site, because when he went to check the weather at the initial site all of the civilian weather monitoring looked fine, but he had access to some secret Navy spy satellites that he was using to study the weather.

He went around and checked on these spy satellites and found that there was this huge storm that wasn't showing up on the other kinds of monitoring systems. And so he had to go to NASA and tell them... they were a civilian organization, and he had to tell them, “you can't land where you think you're going to land, and I can't tell you why. And so you have to move the capsule, and I can't tell you anything more than that.” NASA luckily trusted him to the extent that they did agree to move the capsule, but they also said they were going to send a plane to the original site, and if there wasn't a storm there his career was over. And so they moved the capsule, everybody came down fine, it was a perfect end of mission; and they sent a plane to the original site, and there was a storm that was bad enough that it would have ripped the parachutes right off the capsule. So can you imagine if Apollo 11, they went, they walked on the moon, they came back, and if they came into a storm that would have been it, that would have been the end.
The Apollo missions are amazing because there are so many stories like that, where some little thing could have gone wrong and would have been a disaster. And there are so many things that had to go right. And of course in some of the missions things did go wrong, and they had to make corrections at the last minute, and in a lot of the testing there were a lot of disasters and problems. But it's still amazing to me how much was achieved, and how well it did go considering all of the little pieces that had to be in place and all of the places where they were this close to disaster.



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