Late July/early August 1969. The 10 feet 7 inch Command Module pictured here has just left the moon—the burn marks still visible, splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, and is now isolated in top security waiting to be shipped to the USA. As it turns out, Astronauts Collins’, Armstrong’s, and Aldrin’s spaceship Columbia is going home from Northern Europe’s busiest container shipping port from where all things U.S. military come and go, Bremerhaven, Germany.
And as it also so happens, U.S. Army Major F.R. Lovell is stationed in this North Sea city with me—his wife Susan in yellow shoes—our two daughters leaning in the Module’s open window Becky 5, Julie 4, and our yet-to-be-born son who would be arrive six months later and be named for his dad.
Nobody was even supposed to know Columbia was at the base. But, again, as it turns out, we had a nice German friend with some big security clearance who called one late July-early August morning to see if “die Amerikanishe Kinder” would like to see our spaceship that “ist gerade von der Monde eingetroffen.” Just back from the moon! The picture answers his question!
For the Germans on base, our last name was already connected to space travel because six months earlier in late December 1968, Astronauts Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and William Anders were the first people to fly to the moon circling it ten times showing the world our first ever pictures of the moon. Becky was in a German Kindergarten and her classmates were all excited because “Dein Vater” was on the moon. She insisted her Vater was “zuhause,” but the German kids wouldn’t buy it. “Nein,” they pointed skyward. “Er ist auf der Mond.”
But as we are looking here in the window of Columbia, our little family from Grand Rapids, Michigan, is also remembering the terrible death of our hometown hero Astronaut Roger B. Chaffee two years earlier who, along with Gus Grissom and Edward White, died in a flash fire testing Apollo I at Cape Kennedy, Florida. Without their sacrifices, this Apollo 11 spaceship might not have returned. What NASA learned by the horrific loss of three great Americans was to reduce the level of oxygen in the cockpit, replace flammable materials, and redesign the hatch to open outward.
Neil Armstrong made his “one giant leap for mankind” boosted up by fellow Astronauts Chaffee, Grissom, and White.