Local veteran remembers witnessing Apollo 8 landing
By Jessica Hardin
The year 1968 is remembered for its unprecedented accomplishments: success of the Apollo program and the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
It’s also remembered for unparalleled tragedies: the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
Without access to media due to his service in the Vietnam War, Michael Sauvante’s recollection of the year’s political events is spotty. The Navy veteran and Cornersburg resident remembers the splashdown of the returning Apollo 8 capsule, however.
He witnessed it.
Sauvante, then 20, stood on the deck of the USS Arlington in his “dress whites” and saluted the Apollo 8 astronauts after they were plucked by helicopter from the Pacific Ocean.
In the historic mission, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, a three-astronaut crew – Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders – orbited the moon for the first time. The mission tested the Apollo spacecraft in the moon’s orbit and was a crucial step to the Apollo 11 moon landing seven months later.
As the turbulent year neared its end, millions of Americans watched an emotional broadcast of the Apollo 8 crew reading from the book of Genesis as the craft orbited the moon on Christmas Eve.
The crew also shot the first picture of the Earth rising during a lunar orbit.
On Dec. 27, 1968, Sauvante and his fellow sailors woke up before dawn to watch the capsule’s return to Earth.
“It was hard to distinguish ... but once they splashed down we could see two or three massive helicopters heading toward the splashdown point. One of them actually picked up the capsule and placed it on the flight deck of the USS Yorktown,” he said.
He distinctly remembers the massive size of the parachutes that aided the capsule’s landing.
The crew of Apollo 8 was able to exit the capsule and immediately greet the sailors on the USS Yorktown. In later missions to the moon, astronauts were quarantined after returning to Earth.
“These guys only circled the moon, so there was no concern about contamination issues. ... Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 crews were able to immediately exit the capsules and no concern, because they never set foot on the moon,” he said.
Borman, Lovell and Anders changed from their spacesuits into blue jumpsuits.
Sauvante, who helped collect photos for the annual cruise book, pointed to two photos of the trio clad in blue.
“These are pictures you’re not going to see anywhere else,” he said.
One was a photo of the USS Yorktown in which three figures dressed in blue could be seen surrounded by sailors dressed in white.
A second photo was taken from behind the astronauts looking onto the USS Arlington, which was also lined with sailors dressed in white on the flight deck.
“We steamed alongside them, and we were all in our dress whites and basically saluting in honor of the astronauts,” Sauvante said.
Even after 50 years of technological achievement, Sauvante remains in awe of the feat.
“When you consider that we actually got to the moon and back with the tech we had then, it is mind-boggling,” he said.