The USS Hornet: A Virtual Tour of the Aircraft Carrier That Brought Home the Apollo Astronauts

On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, we take a tour of the WWII-era ship with USS Hornet Museum docent Carl Bragg

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 Combat Information Center (CIC) is the "brains of the ship.” The USS Hornet was equipped with radar and sonar to track enemy movements. The instruments required a dark, cool environment, so the room was equipped with blue lights and air conditioning. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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.

The Bridge

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.

Steering the USS Hornet was a team effort. The captain, navigator and officer of the deck could watch planes being launched from here on the bridge, where they had to ensure the ship's catapults were facing directly into at least 35 knots of wind. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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.

Pilot House

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."

The captain was entirely responsible for the ship while it was underway, and as a result, captains did not get much sleep. This was the at-sea captain's cabin of the USS Hornet, located inside the pilot house, and complete with its own bathroom. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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.

Apollo Missions

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.

The USS Hornet retrieved the astronauts and command modules from the Apollo 11 and 12 moon missions. Due to fears of "moon germs" wiping out Earth's population, the astronauts were quarantined for 3 weeks upon their return in a modified Airstream trailer. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

"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.

Flight Deck

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.

Though it's painted gray like the rest of the ship, the Hornet's flight deck is made of wood. The Navy wanted it to be lightweight, but still able to absorb the shock of planes landing. Two hydraulic catapults could fling a 40,000-pound plane into the air. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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."

The fantail, or stern of the ship, was a recreational area for sailors on the Hornet — a shady spot with a great view where sailors would often come to socialize and smoke cigarettes. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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.

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