As Apollo 11's command module sped back to Earth, it was a central Illinoisan at the helm of the ship recovering astronauts from their ocean splashdown.

"Through the intercom system we could hear NASA talking to them," Kenneth Hoback, 73, says of the broadcasts in the time leading up to the July 24, 1969, return of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.

Hoback spent about 30 years living in central Illinois, between Groveland, Morton and Eureka. He and his wife are now retired to Troy in the Metro East, but on a recent visit to see family in the area he recounted his experiences on the aircraft carrier's bridge the day the first manned lunar landing mission ended 50 years ago.

"I was steering the ship then. And after I did that, my mission was kind of done, because we were alongside the capsule," Hoback said. "We picked it up, then I ran down below and took pictures."

He describes himself as standing with other sailors 30 feet or so outside of the frame of the famous photo of President Richard Nixon speaking to the astronauts inside their quarantine shelter inside the bowels of the USS Hornet.

For the anniversary, Hoback will be returning to the Hornet, now a floating museum in Alameda, Calif. A handful of the sailors aboard still survive and come back to reunions and other media events to share their memories of their role in this piece of global history.

Even before Columbia — the command module — splashed down, excitement on board the ship was high. "Everybody was in their dress whites," Hoback recalls.

That's when he got an unexpected call from the ship's sick bay.

The question to him: "If Neil Armstrong gets injured during the splashdown, would you be interested in going out and giving him a transfusion?"

Hoback's Type O-negative blood made him a universal donor, though his help wasn't needed that day.

Preparations for the retrieval continued, including the arrival of Nixon on board shortly before the planned splashdown. Nixon's travels had hopscotched him first to the remote Johnston Atoll on Air Force One, then to the USS Arlington command ship, then to the Hornet for an early morning arrival.

"Everywhere he walked was all red carpet," Hoback said.

The action continued at a rapid clip thereafter.

"He got there maybe 30 minutes before you could see (the module) coming through the atmosphere like a comet for maybe six or eight seconds," Hoback said. "As soon as that happened, the choppers took off."

Hoback, a self-described "numbers guy," rattles off facts and figures about space throughout the conversation — distance to the lunar body; speed of the craft; distance from target at splashdown; frequency of sunrises while in orbit.

To all those mathematical certainties, he also adds in one more, as much a belief as anything: "I think they will eventually go back to the moon."

About Mars, though, he's a little less certain, given the logistics involved in getting there and back.