Melvin Bien’s face lights up when you ask him what happened 50 years ago Thursday.
The Belleville man was a Navy helmsman and gunner’s mate on the U.S.S. Yorktown (CVS-10) on Dec. 27, 1968, when the aircraft carrier recovered the Apollo 8 space capsule and its three astronauts from the Pacific Ocean.
“These men were the first humans to circle the moon and look down on earth from space,” Bien said in a voice that still reflects his astonishment. “They circled it 10 times in 20 hours. The complete mission was six days, three hours and 42 seconds from launch time to splash down.”
Bien, 71, can recite plenty of other facts and figures, but mainly he emphasizes that the Navy mission went without a hitch. The Yorktown crew had practiced with a “dummy capsule” before Apollo 8 splashed down.
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“You don’t normally do this,” Bien said. “It was something that was coming from outer space, and they wanted the recovery to be perfect.”
Bien worked in maintenance most of his life, but now he’s a baker at Sycamore Village assisted-living center. On a recent evening, he shared his military highlight at the townhouse apartment he shares with his wife, Patricia. Photos and other artifacts covered their dining-room table.
Bien graduated from Belleville West High School before joining the Navy in 1966. He had no idea he would help make NASA history. He was more focused on the Vietnam War.
The Yorktown left Long Beach, California, about a week before Apollo 8 launched on Dec. 21, 1968, from Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, Florida. Bien was one of about 1,400 crewmen.
“(The astronauts) were 1,000 miles from Hawaii, and when they splashed down, they were 2 1/2 miles off our port side,” he said.
The space capsule re-entered the earth’s atmosphere before dawn, creating the most breathtaking moment for those watching from the aircraft carrier.
“Even though it was dark, you could see the three parachutes open on the horizon,” Bien said.
Helicopters flew in with divers who surrounded the Apollo 8 with floatation devices. Then they retrieved the astronauts — Col. Frank Borman II, Capt. James Lovell Jr. and Major William Anders — and took them back to the aircraft carrier to be checked out by NASA doctors.
Eventually, the Yorktown got close enough to the space capsule to lift it out of the water with a crane and cable. Bien snapped photos with an Olympus camera he had bought in Hong Kong.
“Then everyone celebrated,” he said. “They made a huge cake, and they served it in the hangar, and the astronauts ate with them and talked, I guess. I was at the helm, steering the ship.”
Also that day, crewmen mailed letters to folks back home. Each envelope received a special stamp that read, “U.S. Navy Recovery Force” and “Moon Orbital Flight.”
The Yorktown delivered Apollo 8 to Hawaii before heading back to Long Beach. The aircraft carrier was decommissioned in 1970 and now is part of Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
“(The experience) was history and an accomplishment,” Bien said. “But I didn’t realize how important it really was until last Tuesday, when I went to High Mount School and told the kids about it. I saw all these young minds, and they were in amazement. That made my day.”