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"They're back from the moon!": The Apollo 11 splashdown, 50 years later

Apollo 11 splashdown 50 years ago

Eight days after they blasted off into the unknown — and four days after they made history with the first moon landing — the three astronauts of Apollo 11 faced one final, harrowing challenge: the plunge back to Earth. 

NASA calculated they would hit the atmosphere at an entry velocity of 36,194 feet per second. Mission control and TV viewers around the world held their breaths through nine minutes of radio silence as the spacecraft hurtled through ionized gases created by the heat of re-entry. If all went according to plan, at the right moment parachutes would deploy and the capsule carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins would gently splash down at a predetermined spot in the Pacific Ocean and be picked up by a recovery team standing by on the USS Hornet.

Fortunately, it did indeed go according to plan. In the 2006 documentary "In the Shadow of the Moon," Collins recalled: "I can remember the beautiful water. We were out in the deep ocean in the Pacific. It was such a startling violet color. I remember looking at the ocean and admiring: 'Nice ocean you've got here, planet Earth.'"

Millions of Americans tuned in to watch as Walter Cronkite anchored CBS News coverage of the triumphant conclusion of the Apollo 11 moon mission. Here are some highlights.

Splashdown and recovery

How CBS News covered the Apollo 11 splashdown

With its red-and-white striped parachutes deployed, the Apollo 11 command module completed the final leg of its epic journey. On the NASA audio recording, a voice announces: "The Hornet now reports a visual contact. Visual contact from the recovery ship." Soon, Armstrong's voice chimes in: "Hello, Hornet. This is Apollo 11 reading you loud and clear." Finally come the words millions had been waiting for: "They're back from the moon! Astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins landing in the Pacific Ocean, southwest of Hawaii."


A presidential welcome

Nixon greets Apollo 11 astronauts after splashdown

After a helicopter delivered them to the USS Hornet recovery ship, the astronauts were ushered into a Mobile Quarantine Facility on the hangar deck as a precaution. From there, they were greeted by President Richard Nixon, who flew to ship to welcome the returning heroes. 

"I want you to know that I think I'm luckiest man in the world. And I say this not only because I have the honor to be President of the United States, but particularly because I have the privilege of speaking for so many in welcoming you back to Earth," Nixon said, before chatting with the astronauts about the "hardest part" of their journey and what they thought of the MLB All-Star Game they'd missed while in space.

Jon Miller contributed to this story.

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