Monday, September 14, 2009

Airstreams and Moon Germs

With all of the news coverage of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in the past few months, I was surprised to see almost no mention of the San Francisco Bay Area's connection to this historic event mentioned in the local papers. Only a few people I talked to knew of the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda, and even fewer knew that the Hornet was the ship that recovered the astronauts from the Apollo 11 & 12 missions after splashdown.

The USS Hornet

View of San Francisco from the flight deck (flag at half mast in honor of the passing of Senator Kennedy)

Beyond the association with the lunar missions, the Hornet was instrumental in several key battles during WWII, in fact the Hornet was the ship from which the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo was launched, later made famous in the Spencer Tracy film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Coincidentally, Jimmy Doolittle himself was born in Alameda where the Hornet was based and still stands today.

I love exploring large ships, partly because I retain some element of disbelief that something so massive can float, but also I have a peculiar fascination with staircases on ships (gangplanks being a close second). I don't care where they go, I want to climb them. They're really just ladders pretending to be staircases, and I always have that moment of pause at the top when I have to decide whether I should be going down face-first. That's how the cool guys do it in movies like Under Siege — no self-respecting action star would back down a set of stairs no matter how steep — and lord knows I want to be at least as cool as Steven Seagal, so I generally give it a go. [Apologies for the minor digression here, but you really must read the IMDB bio of Steven Seagal, which was written by himself, his publicist, or a deranged stalker - it's hard to tell which.]

Steven Seagal would totally go face-first down this one

Maggie opts for the non-Seagalian method of descent

I have to admit, I liked finding an escalator on the ship, but you would never see a Tommy Lee Jones knife fight here

For space travel aficionados there are countless bits of interest scattered around the hornet: photo exhibits of the splashdowns and recovery missions, the Apollo space capsule used for testing the heat shields, an SH-3H Sea King helicopter used in the movie Apollo 13, and bits of snazzy space fashion.

Lunar couture

Comfy rescue basket

Peering in the Apollo space capsule

The highlight for me among the collection of Apollo artifacts was what is undoubtedly the world's most historically important Airstream trailer.

The one-of-a-kind Airstream MQF

Fearing that the returning astronauts might be carrying some sort of unknown moon germs, a special "Mobile Quarantine Facility" was devised for the astronauts to keep them separated until doctors felt it was safe to release them. The Mobile Quarantine Facility had to look cool and futuristic — no mere Winnebago would suffice — so they used a super-modern Airstream that was specially sealed and fitted for the purpose.

Winnebago's concept for the MQF was unfortunately never commissioned

The astronauts' exit hatch from the MQF

The crew of Apollo 11 talking to Richard Nixon from a safe distance

When I entered the Mobile Quarantine Facility, there was a small child of about 3 years old standing there. "Hi!" he said. "Hi," I replied. It turns out that what he really meant was, "Hi, I just crapped my pants inside of a hermetically sealed Airstream." Maggie climbed in, turned around and climbed back out.

Holding my breath inside the MQF

Everyone gets a chance to be an Apollo astronaut

One small step for man, one giant gulp of moon germs

The USS Hornet is well worth the visit, even if you have little interest in the space travel history. Most of the ship is open for you to wander at will, with most rooms set up as they would be on a working ship, and there are guided tours into some of the otherwise closed parts of the ship. The stunning views of San Francisco are worth the price of admission alone. The USS Hornet Museum is open 10 am - 5 pm, 7 days a week, adult admission is currently $14 - bring a coat as it gets windy and often cold inside the ship. If you time your visit well, you can combine it with a trip to the monthly Alameda Point Antiques & Collectibles Faire or a tasting/tour of Hangar 1 Vodka, or Rosenblum Cellars.


kward said...

It's not enough just to descend a ship's ladder facing forward. You're not a swabby till you slide down using the handrails.

Andy Murdock said...

Darn, I guess I still have some work to do to earn my swabby creds. What do you do when the handrails are rope or cable?