Frogman, Apollo 11 Recovery
Clancy Hatleberg could easily have been in Vietnam doing one of his many stints as a U.S. Navy underwater demolition specialist; clearing rivers and canals of bombs; performing reconnaissance. “You know, James Bond type stuff,” Hatleberg says with a laugh.
Instead, that summer of 1969, when Apollo 11 carried the first humans to walk on the moon and was scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean, by luck of the rotation schedule, Hatleberg was back on the West Coast. Hatleberg's outfit—coincidentally known as Underwater Demolition Team 11—drew recovery duty, working off the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier that launched numerous bombing attacks during World War II.
“When I first got the orders, I was tremendously excited because I had always believed in the space program,” Hatleberg says. “Being given a chance to participate in the first mission where men would actually walk on another planet. … It was like a dream come true.”
But he quickly realized this recovery presented serious new challenges for NASA, even for the world. What if, scientists wondered, the astronauts picked up deadly bacteria during their stay on the moon that would thrive once subjected to earth's atmosphere? As silly as it may seem, moon travelers Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins had to be treated as if they were bacterial time bombs capable of destroying human life by simply exhaling.
“People were very, very concerned about an H. G. Wells, War of the Worlds, sort of in reverse,” Hatleberg says. “Instead of defeating the Martian invaders, we could possibly be hit by a load of diseases.