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Watching history splash down: Duluth photographer recalls brush with moon landing

Pat Shaw (circled at right) stands with other photographers who documented the Apollo 11 mission along with the Apollo 11 command module aboard the USS Hornet. Photo courtesy of Pat Shaw1 / 6
The Apollo 12 capsule is lowered on an elevator to the hanger deck on the USS Hornet after retrieval from the South Pacific Ocean. Photo by Pat Shaw2 / 6
Pat Shaw of Duluth displays a black and white photo he took of the Apollo 12 capsule on the deck of the USS Hornet, where he worked as a Navy photographer. The capsule returned to Earth on Nov. 24, 1969. Bob King / Forum News Service3 / 6
Pat Shaw took this photo of sailors manning the rail with the Apollo 11 capsule in the background as their ship, the USS Hornet, came into port in 1969. Photo by Pat Shaw4 / 6
President Richard M. Nixon was in the central Pacific recovery area to welcome the Apollo 11 astronauts aboard the USS Hornet, prime recovery ship for the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Already confined to the Mobile Quarantine Facility, called the Hornet +3 are (left to right) Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. NASA photo5 / 6
Apollo 11 astronauts peer through the window of the Mobile Quarantine Facility on the deck of the USS Hornet. The quarantine trailer was named Hornet +3. Photo by Pat Shaw 6 / 6

DULUTH —His materials from a brush with history were splayed out on a kitchen table, Duluth's Pat Shaw singled out a group photo filled with his fellow photographers — some from the Navy and others from media outlets, such as National Geographic and the Associated Press.

The capsule from the historic moon landing, Apollo 11, is prominent in the background with its shield of gold foil battered but gleaming.

"The test I always have is, 'Find me,'" Shaw said.

The passage of 49 years made it difficult, but there he was — second row, third from the right, wearing the slightest grin.

Asked what it was like to be on the aircraft carrier, USS Hornet, in the South Pacific as it received the astronauts in the summer of 1969, the Denfeld graduate recalled the 12-on/12-off work days, seven days a week. Many of his were spent developing black and white film in a print lab.

"You were just too busy to absorb it," he said. "You're so focused on getting your assignments done. You might lose your stripe if you didn't."

The 50-year anniversary of man's first steps on the moon is 10 months away, and Hollywood will commemorate the achievement in a film titled "First Man" in October.

"I characterize it as really a high point in human ingenuity and human aspirations," said Nancy Atkinson, a science journalist and author who lives outside St. Cloud. "It was a response to Russia being the first (to put) a satellite and (then) human into orbit that captured a sense of national pride."

Atkinson is working on a book, "Eight Years to the Moon," chronicling the engineering challenges encountered between the time it took to get from President John F. Kennedy's declaration to go to the moon and the event itself.

"It's going behind the scenes," she said. "We've heard from the astronauts and the flight controllers. I'm talking to the engineers who actually designed things and turned the wrenches."

It took 400,000 people around the country and world to make Apollo 11 happen, she said.

And a fraction of that many to chronicle it.

Shaw was sequestered in a below deck hangar bay on the Hornet when Apollo 11 splashed down more than a mile away, off the Johnston Atoll — some 500 miles southwest of Hawaii.

"We were isolated with the blast doors closed," Shaw said, describing how his first glimpse of the mission was a descending elevator holding the helicopter that had retrieved the astronauts.

President Richard Nixon choppered in and out within an hour to greet the three astronauts — Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins — who wore biological isolation garments and would begin a 21-day quarantine in a special Airstream camper unit due to the prospect of contamination by what came to be loosely known as lunar, or moon, bugs.

The notion of its astronauts picking up some sort of biological contaminant came up late in planning, Atkinson said, and nobody at NASA seemed to think it was a credible threat, given the lack of atmosphere and radiation bombardment of the moon. But all contingencies were planned for, and the quarantine became a real thing.

"They were pretty intently watched as far as media and public interest," Atkinson said. "People were curious if these first people who went to moon were going to get sick."

Shaw operated a movie camera inside the hangar as the scene with the astronauts and Nixon unfolded. He put the film into canisters and doesn't know what became of his work.

Shaw was a versatile shooter. He started with photography when the Denfeld yearbook advisor called for volunteers while he was sitting in biology class. He raised his hand, and shortly thereafter, it was holding a Kodak Instamatic.

After enlisting in the Navy following graduation, he bristled at the notion of becoming an aviation electrician.

"I am mechanically inept," Shaw said. "I wasn't interested in being an AE."

He was sent to be a mess cook stateside for a few months before his division officer put him in for photography school. He went to Pensacola, Fla., for 18 weeks of photography training. Every two weeks he was tested.

"You had to be equal to or greater than your previous test score or you washed out," he said. "We started with 60 photographers and finished with 31."

Afterward, he got his orders to Navy Fleet Intelligence Center Pacific. He was going to support the war effort in Vietnam.

"You were very busy," he said. "I didn't see the United States from July of '67 to January of 1970 when I got out."

Well before Apollo 11, and for 18 months straight, he and other photographers worked on bombing targets. Photographers in the sky would shoot countless rolls of film, while Shaw and others would develop and print the images on a base in Subic Bay in the Philippines. The images would be spliced together for photo intelligence readers to examine. Each camera held 500-750 feet of film.

"When the Tet Offensive happened," Shaw said, "we did almost a million miles of film in three weeks. It was a workout."

When he went aboard the Hornet in January 1969, Shaw joined an aircraft carrier teeming with 3,500 sailors. Within the year, he would take part in the Apollo 11 splashdown and Apollo 12 three months later.

"We were the primary recovery vehicle," he said. "They had alternate locations, depending on ... let's say they had to leave the moon early, they would not (land) on earth where we were. But we were in the middle of nowhere. Look up nowhere on the map, and Johnston Island would be right next to it."

Once home, Shaw went on to a 30-year career as the official photographer of Duluth public schools, retiring in 1999 — the year the media department was cut.

Rifling through his own photos of Apollo 11 and 12, he pointed out a ceremony featuring Admiral Jack McCain, father of the recently deceased Sen. John McCain. There was a moody image of one of the Apollo capsules in the distance framed by bay doors which would make a fine wall-hanger.

As he spoke, Shaw's voice filled with pride — of service and country.

As he studied an image taken by a long-ago colleague, Shaw said, "The amazing thing about the Saturn V rocket is it was 36 stories high, and all that comes back is that little tiny triangle at the top."