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Spokane Valley man helped recover Apollo 11

TUESDAY, JULY 21, 2009

The Apollo 11 mission that landed a man on the moon 40 years ago holds a special place in the memory of one Spokane Valley resident.

Retired Navy Commander Van Spradley was the first person to make radio contact with the astronauts after their capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on July 24, 1969.

“I was the first guy to see them come through the atmosphere,” he said during an interview at his home Monday, the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing by Apollo 11.

“It was a giant fireball coming down,” he said, recalling that the streaking capsule left a trail in the sky about 200 miles long as its heat shield burned during re-entry.

Spradley, a career pilot, was serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, which had been assigned to pluck Apollo 11 from the Pacific Ocean 920 miles south-southwest of Hawaii.

He was given the job of “air boss” to oversee the initial recovery from his aircraft as the capsule floated down to the water beneath its large parachutes.

Spradley made sure the astronauts were OK during descent and was on hand to take charge in case of any problems. “Everything went smoothly. It was clockwork, just clockwork,” he said.

“They weren’t out there bobbing around waiting for us.”

Spradley said he remembers that the sky was overcast that day, and that the Hornet was some distance from the splashdown – 13 miles, according to records.

Recovery men dropped out of helicopters, put a flotation collar around the base of the capsule and assisted the astronauts in getting out safely.

The capsule landed upside down in the water, but was turned upright by three onboard floats.

Spradley still has documents from his historic mission.

“I’m very proud of it,” he said. “It was an historic event of which I was blessed to be part of.”

A handwritten checklist notes that two of the floats were “firm” and full of air and a third one was “soft.”

After being hoisted into a helicopter, the astronauts were flown to the Hornet, where President Richard Nixon was waiting. Nixon missed seeing the splashdown because the carrier was too far away, but he greeted the returning astronauts in a live television broadcast from the ship.

The 44,000-ton Hornet, which served as an anti-submarine carrier, is now a national historic landmark and museum. It is docked at Alameda Point on San Francisco Bay.

Spradley, who joined the Navy in 1945, spent 30 years in the military, retiring to Spokane after his discharge in 1975. He is married with three children.

A native of South Carolina, he said he served in Spokane in the 1950s and decided to retire here because he liked the region’s outdoor recreation and four-season climate.

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