Amarillo's Howard Smith remembers Apollo 9 mission


In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy challenged the United States to go to the moon by the end of the decade, Howard Smith had no idea he would play a part in America making history.

Fast forward about eight years to March 1969. Smith, in his late 20s, was serving in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Guadalcanal. The USS Guadalcanal was the recovery ship for Apollo 9, one of the final missions before America and Apollo 11 achieved the goal of being the first nation to put a man on the moon.

“The space program was the new battleground for the Cold War,” said Smith, who has served on Amarillo City Council since 2017. 

America won the race, thanks to the dedication and commitment of countless individuals.

After graduating from Amarillo High and Baylor University, Smith joined the U.S. Navy, attending Officer Candidate School and U.S. Navy Supply School. 

It was the responsibility of the USS Guadalcanal to pick up the Apollo 9 crew (James McDivitt, Russell Schweickart and David Scott) when they returned to Earth by splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean following 10 days in space on March 13, 1969.

According to NASA, the primary objective of Apollo 9 was an Earth-orbital engineering test of the first crewed lunar module. A few months later (on July 20, 1969) the first human set foot on the moon as Apollo 11 made history. 

Apollo 9 was a successful mission that paved the way to the moon.

“We were down to the wire to accomplish what Kennedy laid out,” Smith said. “We were aware of how historical this was. Bad things can happen, but Apollo 9 went as well as could be expected. They accomplished every goal they had.”

The USS Guadalcanal picked up the three-man Apollo 9 crew without a hitch.

“My ship had a job to do – to pick them up when they landed. Even though we played a major part, it only took a few minutes,” Smith said. 

The Apollo 9 crew was to originally land in the ocean near Bermuda. However, waves of 10-12 feet in the Atlantic Ocean moved the landing spot to near the Bahamas. 

“We would listen for a sonic boom and then another sonic boom. Then you look up and if they were on target, you would see three parachutes,” Smith said. “It happened exactly like NASA said.”

When the astronauts landed on the deck of the USS Guadalcanal while exiting the retrieval helicopter, there was the sound of hundreds of cameras clicking. 

“Probably around 400 cameras,” Smith said.

The successful return home of the Apollo 9 crew included a lunch – the first traditional meal for the astronauts following 10 days of space travel. Smith had a menu prepared for each astronaut, and they made their individual selections.

Smith still has the menus. For the record, McDivitt’s meal included waffles and fresh milk. Schweickart had grilled steak and French-fried potatoes while Scott enjoyed scrambled eggs and grilled steak.

“I should have had the astronauts autograph the menus,” Smith said with a laugh. “I was in charge of ordering mess. We had white tablecloths, napkins. The men under me prepared the menu.”

And four months later, the United States landed on the moon.

“This turned things around for the nation,” Smith said.

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