NASA Needed Thousands of Men to Recover its Astronauts

Amy Shira Teitel
7 min readJul 9, 2021

Splashdowns are iconic of the Apollo era. Pictures of astronauts being plucked out of the water or waving from recovery carriers are synonymous with the successful end of a mission. But have you ever wondered just how many men it took to pluck one astronaut out of the water?

A lot. The answer is a lot.

Al Shepard being hoisted out of the water after his Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961. NASA.


Before we can talk about how many men were involved in splashdown recovery efforts, we need to understand why NASA selected splashdowns in the first place.

When the space age dawned in the late 1950s, there were two vehicle types up for consideration: aircraft inspired like the X-15 and Dyna-Soar, and capsule inspired like missile warheads. There was a strong argument for capsules over aircraft-inspired because of overlap with nuclear warheads.

Engineers working with nuclear warheads had dealt with a unique challenge throughout the 1950s: getting the bombs to detonate on their targets and not from friction with the atmosphere as they fell to Earth. Engineer Max Faget working with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at the Langley Research Centre, found that a blunt shape was key. This shape created a cushion of air that, coupled with an ablative heat shield, protected the warhead as it fell. Replacing the warhead with a human-carrying capsule, Faget and his team quickly realized, was a simple way to launch a man into space and bring him home safely.

Aircraft-inspired vehicles meant solving the same aerodynamic heating but without the same blunt-body benefits and adding the human element of pilot control. The X-15 program was doing some of this research, but it was a far more complicated method than capsules, and that also meant it would take longer to perfect.

Government and industry partners ultimately determined capsules were the best way to fast-track America getting a man into space — which was paramount since America’s space program was created to match the Soviets’ pace. When NASA opened for business in October of 1958, it took over the individual proto-space research program throughout the country and brought them under one umbrella. The backbone of this new agency was the NACA, which meant NASA inherited Max Faget and his research into…

Amy Shira Teitel

Historian and author of Fighting for Space (February 2020) from Grand Central Publishing. Also public speaker, TV personality, and YouTuber. [The Vintage Space]