Ex-Navy SEAL frogman John Wolfram shares experiences of Apollo 11 recovery mission
July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and four days later made a safe return trip to Earth. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first people to have walked on the moon. Michael Collins was also on board the spacecraft, but stayed in orbit to take photographs.
Now 50 years later, the first responder to the Apollo 11 Earth landing, ex-Navy SEAL frogman John Wolfram, shared his experience in the spacecraft recovery. Wolfram, a Fort Atkinson native, spoke Thursday at the Hoard Historical Museum.
“When I was standing in that helicopter door, ready to jump in the water, I knew that history was about to be made,” Wolfram said. “I wanted to do my job well. I knew that the astronauts were dependent on our skills.”
It was Wolfram’s duty to attach a sea anchor to the command module Columbia, in order to stabilize it. He worked with two other native Wisconsinites on the mission.
The astronauts landed a mile within their target point in the Pacific, Wolfram said. They survived entering Earth’s atmosphere at 24,800 mph (ca. 39,912 km/h) in a spacecraft that heated to 5,200 degrees Fahrenheit (ca. 2,871 °C) on the outside.
After the capsule landed in the ocean, Wolfram took some foil from the spacecraft, which is now on display permanently at the Hoard Historical Museum.
Wolfram said the spacecraft landed with only 30 seconds of fuel left.
Wolfram and his team practiced countless times for the recovery mission. He said about 450,000 people worked together to get the astronauts to the moon and back.
“Knowing that you have to jump in shark-infested waters, knowing that you still have to do your job regardless of your fears. For me, that was the hardest part,” Wolfram said.
There was no time for fear, with former U.S. President Richard Nixon and millions of other people watching the recovery and the recovery team.
Wolfram was two years out of high school when he completed the mission. On his suit, Wolfram wore flowers. During a time of political controversy in regard to the Vietnam War, Wolfram was always giving the peace sign.
“You can cut a guy’s hair, you can put a uniform on him, but there’s something about that spirit on the inside,” Wolfram said. “I have that free spirit, and I guess it stayed with me throughout the Navy.”
Wolfram said his hair went to his shoulders when he was in high school, which caused school officials to decide not to show his senior year photo in the yearbook.
Wolfram is still a supporter of NASA, and he has confidence for the future of it.
“It’s important that we continue on, and now they’re talking about the first woman to land on the moon. I think that’s exciting,” Wolfram said.
Following his recovery mission with Apollo 11, Wolfram fought two tours in Vietnam and was given the Purple Heart for a leg injury. After the war, he started a Bible school for eight Vietnam War teammates and friends who died in the Vietnam War.
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