Forty-seven years ago, we traveled back to man’s final frontier.
By John DC Gow
We’re all aware of Neil Armstrong’s first words on the moon. What isn’t so well known is what the third man on the moon, Commander Charles ‘Pete’ Conrad Jr, said as he found his footing on the lunar soil. Four months after Apollo 11, the wise-cracking Conrad stepped onto the surface and told the world, “Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.” It was partly funny, partly said as a bet, and wholly in the spirit of Apollo 12.
Conrad was joined on his mission by Command Module Pilot Richard Francis ‘Dick’ Gordon Jr and Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean. Conrad and Gordon were already best friends and Conrad knew of Bean because he was his instructor years before. Conrad was short, bald and had a gap-toothed smile. He was full of fun and energy but swore so much in the simulator, NASA feared he would do it publicly. Gordon was outgoing too. He was strong and square-jawed with a gift for the ladies. They had roomed together as pilots on the USS Ranger aircraft carrier and were also the two-man crew for Gemini 11 three years earlier.
Alan Bean was different to them – he more serious. The three became the first all-navy Apollo crew and drove matching Corvettes, but Bean loved checklists and the tiny details, something the other two hated. Even when serving as a pilot he took evening classes to learn oil painting. While Conrad and Gordon were natural pilots, Bean wasn’t, but he became a top aviator through determination. Conrad admired Bean for his persistence and problem-solving ability, and fought to get him on his crew.
But it nearly all came apart moments after lift-off. At 36 seconds into the fight, Pete Conrad saw a flash from the corner of his eye. Suddenly the Master Alarm screamed into their ears. Everything relating to the electrical system was flashing. No-one had seen so many alarms going off at once in a simulation, never mind reality. “I just lost the platform”, said Conrad. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were hit by lightning. At 52 seconds, a second strike (which the crew didn’t even notice) surged through the giant Saturn V to do more mischief.
Those on-board and on the ground were confused. Eventually a bright young flight controller, John Aaron, remembered something similar in a practice months before and gave a command to flick an obscure switch. With his eye-for-detail paying off, only Bean understood the message and it helped recover telemetry and give clarity. Conrad later said that since the guidance system and engines seemed to be fine he never once considered an abort.
With the Saturn V rocket stages continuing without further problems they knew they were on the way and the tension eased. “Was that ever a sim they gave us,” said Conrad incredulously, “There were so many lights up there I couldn’t read them all.” The three astronauts laughed together as they traveled into orbit.
After checking to see if there was any lasting damage – and the trans-lunar injection burn to the moon – the three were on their way. They occasionally celebrated by simultaneously bobbing up and down in the Command Module Yankee Clipper to the hit song ‘Sugar, Sugar’. As much as you can in zero-gravity the Apollo 12 crew ‘danced’ their way to their destination on the Ocean of Storms.
What NASA didn’t mention to the exhilarated astronauts was a fear the lightning had damaged the pyrotechnics on the Command Module parachutes. If that was the case, nothing could be done, so it was decided there was no point in adding additional worries.
One of the reasons for the decided landing site was to find and take back pieces of the unmanned Surveyor 3 sampler craft which had landed on the moon two years earlier. The crater it rested in, and the ones surrounding it, looked like a snowman with Surveyor 3 sitting in the belly. It meant a pinpoint landing, but after Apollo 11 ended up four miles off course, it was a lofty goal and opened NASA up to public ridicule if they missed.
Although Conrad was a brilliant pilot and impressive in the simulator, he let his crew-mates in on how he felt about landing the Lunar Module Intrepid. “Twenty-four hours from now, Beano, we’re on our way down pal” said Conrad to Bean, “that’s when I get nervous. [But] find that little muthuh [Surveyor 3] and I’ll land it right side up.”
His openness was unusual in their highly macho world and the opposite of Apollo 11, but he was amongst friends and he didn’t need to pretend. Part of the natural tension was also that Conrad didn’t believe such a precise targeting could be done. This would be the first time. Conrad knew he was good and could drop the Intrepid anywhere, but it had to be relatively flat. When Armstrong went off-course he found truck-sized boulders and deep craters.
When the time came and Intrepid automatically ‘pitched over’ so Conrad and Bean could get a better view of the upcoming landing site, Conrad hesitated. For a horrible moment nothing was familiar. Then he saw his trusted ‘snowman’. His excitement was overflowing: “Hey, there it is. There it is! Son-of-a-Gun! Right down the middle of the road.” Twice more – even while trying to land – Conrad was still verbalizing his thoughts saying: “I can’t believe it.”
“The boys on the ground do okay,” replied Bean. It was understated, but a big compliment for all those at NASA who had worked tirelessly to achieve the incredible. But it wasn’t over yet. Bean recalls feeling a moment of fear when Conrad took over the controls from the computer and was tilting the Lunar Module around to pick his spot. Bean had not used the landing trainer and didn’t know such sharp maneuvers were necessary.
With so much dust being thrown up by the Intrepid’s thrust, Conrad was mostly reliant on his instruments and Bean’s continuous relaying of distance to the ground and rate of descent. Unfortunately, the instrument he used to detect lateral motion didn’t seem to be working.
A Lunar Module could land with some sideways or forward or backward motion (just as Apollo 11 did) but it wasn’t ideal. The four module legs had an obvious give, but the perfect landing was straight down. What Conrad didn’t know at the time was that the instruments weren’t broken. They showed no lateral movement because his vertical descent was near-perfect.
Less than 50 feet to go an excited Bean was telling Conrad that he had “plenty of gas” and “he’s got it made”. After they had touched Bean turned to his friend: “Good landing, Pete! Outstanding, man.” Dick Gordon orbiting the moon alone in the Yankee Clipper was privately disappointed he couldn’t go that extra 0.1 percent to the surface. Yet he never mentioned it or held it against the rookie Bean. He simply told his buddies on the surface to “have a ball”.
When outside they managed to be the first (and so far only) astronauts to contact another human machine outside Earth, and took pieces of the Surveyor 3 home for analysis. They also set up the first long-term scientific experiments on the moon called the ‘Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package’ (ALSEP). The only blight happened when Alan Bean destroyed the color television camera by accidentally pointing it towards the sun.
The other disappointment was Pete Conrad failing to smuggle a giant baseball cap to cover his space helmet, although another joke did succeed. Some on the ground managed to smuggle Playboy pinups into Conrad and Bean’s cuff checklists which were usually filled with technical reminders. The risqué photographs were accompanied with lines such as ‘Seen any Interesting Hills and Valleys?’ Conrad’s intermittent laughter confused those back on earth – except the crew who had set up the joke.
With Dick Gordon alone and awaiting his buddies, it was time to take off and rendezvous with the Yankee Clipper for the journey home. The engine used for ascent from the moon was a one-off. There was no ignition system as it relied on mixing chemicals which ignited on contact. But the propellants used were so corrosive it was untested prior to use. It either worked or it didn’t, and if it didn’t you were soon dead. Conrad sensed the tension in Alan Bean and asked him if he was worried. “Yep” came the terse reply. “Well”, said Conrad, “there’s no sense worrying about it Al, because if it don’t work, we’re just gonna become the first permanent monument to the space program”.
Of course, the ascent engine (and parachutes in the atmosphere) worked. They spectacularly fulfilled their mission goals showing that friendship and professionalism could complement each other. Over the years Alan Bean would say his special memories were not about landing on the moon, but being with his buddies Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon. America may correctly remember Apollo 11, but it should not be forgotten that the best of America was also on the other Apollo missions – especially Apollo 12.
For the record, Pete Conrad never received the winnings from his bet.