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Canadian Apollo 11 surgeon readies for 'last hurrah' of 50th landing anniversary

Col. Buzz Aldrin, former Apollo 11 lunar module pilot, left, waves as he enters a NASA Mobile Quarantine Facility, identical to the one he spent time in immediately upon his return from his voyage to the moon 40 years ago, with former NASA flight crew surgeon Dr. William Carpentier, Saturday, July 24, 2009. Dr. William Carpentier has celebrated several milestone moon landing anniversaries, but this year feels different, he says.The Edmonton native, who grew up in Lake Cowichan, B.C., was the flight surgeon for the historical Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969 and appears in the Canadian special "Make It To The Moon," airing Sunday on Discovery and Discovery Science.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Ben Margot

TORONTO — Dr. William Carpentier has celebrated several milestone moon-landing anniversaries, but this year feels different, he says.

The Edmonton native, who grew up in Lake Cowichan, B.C., was the flight surgeon for the historical Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969 and appears in the Canadian special “Make It To The Moon,” airing Sunday on Discovery and Discovery Science.

While he’s attended gatherings for the 40th and 45th Apollo 11 anniversaries, the imminent 50th is “the big year,” he says.

“There’s nobody who’s going to be alive that’s a part of the Apollo program at 100 years — so this is the last hurrah, as it were,” Carpentier, 83, said this week in a phone interview.

“It’s an important milestone to remember — one of the greatest adventures of the 20th century.”

Golden Globe-nominated Canadian actor Stephan James narrates the two-hour “Make It To The Moon,” which re-airs on Discovery and premieres on CTV and Crave on the 50th anniversary on July 20.

The special features four teams who were contracted by NASA for the mission to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Carpentier, who trained to became a pilot while in medical school at the University of British Columbia, joined NASA in 1965 as an aeromedical clinical investigator. He was in his third year of his post-graduate residency in aviation medicine at Ohio State University at the time.

Carpentier became the flight surgeon for several Gemini and Apollo missions, overseeing the health and welfare of the astronauts and gathering pre- and post-flight data.

His goal was to understand the human physiology changes from space flight and what could possibly be done to treat it or prevent it for future missions.

During the Gemini flights he even learned how to leap out of a helicopter into the ocean in the event he would have to treat astronauts in such a manner.

When astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took humankind’s first steps on the lunar surface, Carpentier was aboard the USS Hornet aircraft carrier in the Pacific, waiting to help retrieve the astronauts from the water via helicopter upon their return to Earth.

He was unable to watch the historic moment happen live on TV, but he heard the radio communication and later got to see the moment on film when he and the astronauts returned to Houston post-quarantine three weeks later.

“It was incredible relief that it actually happened and that they did land successfully, they were able to egress successfully,” the Texas-based Carpentier recalled from his summer home in Pender Island, B.C. 

“You can’t help but to be pleased, even overjoyed.”

Carpentier later got to travel with the Apollo 11 team on a celebratory world tour, which saw the astronauts meeting world leaders and royalty.

When the Apollo program ended, Carpentier trained in nuclear medicine and worked in the Scott and White Clinic in Texas for 30 years. He was also a consultant on NASA research projects during the Space Shuttle program.

These days, Carpentier is determined to collect and collate all of the biomedical data documented during the first decade of manned space flight for the Mercury, Gemini and the Apollo programs.

Such information has never been integrated and combined, Carpentier said, noting he wants to create a database for future researchers and scientists.

As for NASA’s future relationship with the moon, Carpentier can’t predict.

“From what I understand there is a preliminary plan of returning to the moon within the next five to 10 years, and maybe setting up a moon base as sort of a working laboratory to understand living for longer periods of time in foreign environments, to prepare to go to Mars,” he said.

“So I think the next big exploratory adventure is going to be of course going to Mars. But unfortunately that will not be in my lifetime.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press