What to Know
Built during WWII, the USS Hornet was in service from the 1940s until 1970
In 1969, the Hornet retrieved the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 astronauts and command modules from their landing site in the Pacific Ocean
As a museum ship in Alameda, CA, the retired Hornet now houses air and space memorabilia, and restores vintage fighter planes
Docked at a quiet, out-of-the-way pier near what was once Alameda's bustling Naval Air Station, the retired USS Hornet sits as a monument to the Navy, but also to the U.S. space program that successfully landed two men on the moon 50 years ago.
Retrieving the astronauts of Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 was among the ship's final duties after nearly three decades of service and countless advances in nautical and aviation technology. With seemingly endless knowledge about those advances, USS Hornet Museum docent Carl Bragg gave us a tour of the technology that made the ship run.
Combat Information Center
The combat information center (CIC) is the "brains of the ship" on a Navy vessel, Bragg said. The USS Hornet was equipped with radar and sonar to track enemy movements, with readouts on scopes powered by vacuum tubes. The instruments required a dark, cool environment, so the room was equipped with blue lights and air conditioning.
The Hornet sailed in the days before digital displays, so the large, illuminated information boards in the CIC were constantly being updated by hand. A sailor stood behind the boards wearing a headset, and wrote information backwards on the glass as it came in, so those on the other side could read it.
Still equipped with its blue lights and humming vacuum tubes, the Hornet's CIC also includes early versions of technology still in use today: a mechanical, analog navigation computer called a dead-reckoning tracer (DRT), and a sonar-based submarine tracking display.
"We could track four submarines at one time, which was quite innovative in the '60s, when this thing was designed, Bragg said.
Primary Flight Control
If the combat information center feels like a dark cave, the Hornet's primary flight control tower, dubbed "Pri-Fly," feels like an airy mountaintop by comparison. With sunlight streaming in, and panoramic views of the flight deck and the surrounding waters, Pri-Fly was picturesque, but also scorching hot. The Hornet had no air conditioning except in a few select areas.
The ship's "fly boss," typically an ex-aviator assigned to the ship's company, watched and directed from the tall perch as airplanes were catapulted into the sky, and then brought back to the small landing area on the ship's wooden flight deck. These launches and recoveries were initially captured on 16mm film, and later closed-circuit television, so they could be analyzed in the event of a mishap.
As one of the highest points on the ship, Pri-Fly could easily be in harm's way. A tiny escape hatch provided swift egress to the decks below — for sailors small enough to fit through it.
"That escape hatch is not for a large person," Bragg said.
In its earliest years, the USS Hornet had what was known as a "flying bridge" — one without a roof. In those days, captains preferred an unobstructed view of the sea and the sky, Bragg said. But then came the jet age — and the deafening roar of airplane engines that would ultimately force the Navy to put a roof on the bridge, complete with acoustic dampening material. Without air conditioning, that meant the bridge would get hot and smoky, since cigarettes were ubiquitous among sailors of the day.
The bridge was sparsely furnished, with only one big chair for the captain.
"The only person allowed to sit in the chair was the captain," Bragg said. "And now, us old docents."
While the ship was underway, he said, the bridge was staffed by four people: the captain, the navigator, the junior officer of the deck (who manned the radios) and the officer of the deck, who relayed orders to the pilot house through small portholes in an armored bulkhead.
Though the captain sat on the bridge, the actual steering was done from directly behind him, inside the pilot house. The helmsman, typically a junior enlisted officer, would turn the large, shiny steering wheel as the lee helmsman, standing next to him, dialed speed changes into the engine order telegraph — a communication device that sent messages to a throttleman who physically opened and closed steam valves in the engine room.
Also inside the pilot house was the captain's cozy at-sea cabin — with its tiny desk, private bathroom and twin bed.
"The captain is responsible for the ship totally when it's underway," Bragg said. "So they did not get much sleep."
Captains would eat and shower in the tiny cabin, he said, and occasionally watch TV — whether it was live video of airplane launches and recoveries, or the nightly movie that was shown for sailors aboard the ship.
When President Nixon greeted the three Apollo 11 astronauts who'd successfully made it to the moon and back, he did it aboard the USS Hornet — through a thick sheet of glass. Upon splashing down in the Pacific, the astronauts were hoisted into a helicopter, already wearing quarantine suits to avoid spreading any infections they might have picked up while walking on the moon. Once aboard the Hornet, the astronauts entered a modified Airstream trailer and closed the door before removing their sealed uniforms.
"We didn't know what we were gonna find," Bragg said. "What they were trying to do is make sure these gentlemen didn't contaminate the outside."
The sealed trailer had its wheels replaced with flat metal pallets and its couches replaced with airplane seats, so that it could be carried by sea, land and air with the astronauts inside. They were joined by a doctor and a cook/mechanic, who Bragg said prepared the first meals ever cooked in a microwave oven, from ingredients passed through an air-tight box from the outside.
The quarantine procedure was repeated for Apollo 12, whose astronauts and command module were also recovered by the Hornet. The Hornet Museum currently displays the Mobile Quarantine Facility used for Apollo 14 — the last mission to require a quarantine procedure before the moon was found to be sterile and therefore not a risk for infections.
Though it's painted gray like the rest of the ship, the Hornet's flight deck is made of wood. That was the preferred material for absorbing the impact of planes landing without weighing the ship down too much, given the technology of the day, Bragg said. The ship's two hydraulic flight deck catapults could fling a 40,000-pound plane into the air, but as aircraft became more advanced, that was no longer enough, he said.
More modern, steam-driven catapults were needed to launch a 70,000-pound plane like the F-4 Phantom, he said, including the one now displayed on the Hornet's deck. In its later years, he said, the Hornet was converted into a helicopter ship, defending the fleet against enemy submarines.
But ultimately, Bragg said, "We were retired because of our catapults."
The Hornet's "fantail" — the very back of the ship — was a recreational area for sailors, Bragg said, as long as no planes were flying.
During air operations, he said, "We didn't want anybody down here in case the aircraft crashed here."
Bragg said during the ship's heyday, cigarette smoking was a universal pastime, and sailors were expected to clean up after themselves. "Butt kits" — the Navy's term for an ashtray — were placed around the area, and the deck was expected to be spotless at all times. Cigarette butts weren't allowed to be thrown overboard either.
But one thing was allowed to be thrown overboard: food waste. While the Hornet was underway, sailors would dump kitchen garbage down a chute on the fantail aimed straight at the ship's propellers, which would effectively act as a garbage disposal.
"The propellers chew it up — feed the fish!" Bragg said.