50 years later, Leland man recalls Apollo 17 capsule recovery mission

Space travel was something Farmer always dreamed of, so it's no surprise that his help with Apollo 17 is one of his favorite stories to tell.
Published: Dec. 7, 2022 at 6:34 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

LELAND, N.C. (WECT) - Wednesday marks 50 years since the last time astronauts blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and 50 years since a Leland man played a role in the historic Apollo 17 mission.

Even well over 10 years into his retirement, Robert Farmer likes to keep busy. He wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning and is out the door to drive for Uber. He calls it quits at lunch and is back home to do work around the house. When he’s not on the move, though, he likes to relive old memories. One of his favorites is Apollo 17.

“The opportunity to go on [the Apollo 17] mission arose on a volunteer basis,” said Farmer, who served in the U.S. Navy at the time of the mission. “I viewed it as an opportunity to get out of Vietnam.”

Farmer has had an interest in outer space for at least 60 years. He remembers one of the first days it captured his attention when John Glenn orbited the Earth three times.

“I skipped school and stood on my back porch and gazed at the sky in hopes that I might catch a glimpse of the capsule,” said the Wilmington native.

Knowing about his deep-rooted interest, his mother encouraged him to go on the Apollo 17 mission, even though it would mean he’d miss Christmas at home for the first time.

“She said ‘you go,’ because she knew that it was like a childhood fantasy. I wasn’t actually up there, but I’d see a little more of it.”

On December 7, 1972, the USS Ticonderoga was in the Pacific, getting ready for the mission of a lifetime.

“Even if you don’t make the ‘in the water’ team, everybody has a role. Everybody has an important role, regardless of what it is. If everybody is not doing what they’re supposed to do, it could be disastrous.”

Nearly 5,000 miles away in Florida, three astronauts launched the last manned mission to the moon. Twelve days later, they’d return to Earth in a splashdown. Until then, Farmer’s ship was getting ready for its part in the mission.

“Part of my job was to report improvements on exercises that we were going to do every day,” said Farmer. “How much time -- how much less time did it take this time to do it than it did last time after you’ve repeated it a few times? We couldn’t actually -- they couldn’t certify them to do it until they reached a certain operational level.”

Finally, the day came. Everything was planned out, sometimes down to the second. Still, there was some uncertainty when it came to the capsule reentering the atmosphere. A four-minute blackout caused by ionized air from the craft meant those on the ground wouldn’t know if the astronauts are falling at the right angle.

“That’s when you don’t know,” said Farmer, thinking back to the tense moments. “Everything else has gone according to schedule, you kind of assume this is going to also but it doesn’t take but a degree. One degree of the other way, they’re gone or they burn up.”

Once the blackout passed, relief took over and a once-in-a-lifetime scene unfolded.

“I could see the drone chute and the three chutes open up against the clear blue sky. It was one of the most awesome things I’d ever seen in my life.”