The anniversary of those six American conquests of the Moon is always a time to reflect on what was called man’s greatest adventure when three men aboard the spaceship called Apollo captivated the world.
This week marks 47 years since three Navy buddies flew to the Moon and made a pinpoint landing that punctuated with an exclamation point America winning the Moon Race against the Communist Soviet Union before the end of the 1960s decade.
While the historic first Moon landing of Apollo 11 by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20,1969 was a hair-raising, white knuckle event with lots of problems, the lessons learned allowed for Apollo 12 to make a textbook, smooth touchdown right on target.
Armstrong and Aldrin found their moonship named Eagle was flying too fast and it overshot their landing site by two miles. Undoubtedly the best pilot in the astronaut corps, Armstrong’s skills paid off as he had to maneuver over boulders looking for a smooth place to set down with near empty tanks fueling an engine that may last just 30 more seconds, Armstrong landed the 20-ton moonship safely into the history books at Tranquility Base.
With three months to solve those navigation and computer problems that plagued Apollo 11, NASA engineers chose to land Apollo 12 next to an unmanned lander that 18-months earlier proved the lunar surface would support heavy weight.
Called Surveyor 3, this spidery-looking, 700-pound space probe the size of a small car was made of aluminum tubes with three landing legs, fuel tanks, engine thrusters, solar panels, a remote arm with a scoop and the important camera system.
When Surveyor 3 landed April 20, 1967 in the Ocean of Storms it was another American triumph of a controlled soft landing of a spacecraft on an alien world. Surveyor 1 had previously landed safely in 1966, but Surveyor 2 crashed.
Surveyor 3 had actually landed inside the sloping walls of a small crater a couple hundred yards wide in the Ocean of Storms. That became “Surveyor Crater,” and above it was the landing target for Apollo 12. And during midnight hour of Wednesday Nov. 19, 1969, best friends Pete Conrad and Alan Bean took their moonship Intrepid right where they had been planning for six months. They landed right on top of Surveyor Crater looking down at the little robot that had been waiting for them.
Conrad and Bean were true friends, along with their Navy buddy in the mothership “Yankee Clipper” orbiting the Moon, Dick Gordon. Unlike the Apollo 11 crew of Armstrong, deceased, Aldrin, 86, and lunar orbiter Michael Collins, 86, who bonded only around the business of space travel, the Apollo 12 crew were true buddies during decades together as military pilots flying the most cutting edge of aircraft.
The diminutive, 5-foot, 5-inch Conrad was one of the practical jokers in the astronaut corps with unflappable wit. He bet a female reporter $500 that he could say anything he wanted to when he stepped off the ladder onto the Moon. She said NASA dictated Armstrong’s famous words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” but Conrad knew Neil thought it up on the way to the Moon. Conrad told the reporter what he planned to say, and said it when he became the third human to step onto the Moon. His self-effacing words were: “Whoopee! That may have been a small one for Neil, but it’s a long one for me.” Conrad said he never collected the bet. Tragically, Conrad died in 1999 from internal injuries after crashing his motorcycle.
NASA had twice fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 proclamation directing America to land on the Moon before the end of the decade. The methodical approach was to learn about human spaceflight with the one man Mercury, the two-man Gemini, then the three-man, two vehicle Apollo program.
Overcoming long odds after the death of three astronauts during a launch pad test of the moonship in January 1967, the entire country was involved in the Moon Race. Each of the United States contributed something to the ultimate human adventure. And the elite astronaut corps adapted daily to last-minute innovations and risky missions that solved problems with spacesuits, navigation and docking systems. The July 20, 1969 landing of Apollo 11 was a true triumph of the American spirit.
But by November, there was a lot of public sentiment that any more Apollo moon missions were a waste of money and too risky. The Viet Nam War, racial strife and a sliding economy were on the minds of Americans more than another trip to the Moon. The Apollo 12 launch and 3-day lunar trip got the usual media coverage, but not as comprehensive as the hour-by-hour telecast of the Apollo 11 mission.
Then, a public relations nightmare happened once Apollo 12 had safely landed and the astronauts were walking about the surface. The special color camera for sending back live photos during the moonwalks was damaged when astronaut Bean accidentally aimed it at the Sun! The inadvertent exposure to the direct, hot Sun fried the video sensor and ruined any hope of sending back live photos.
During Apollo 11, the drama played out on a Sunday afternoon landing, and then the historic moonwalk late in the evening. The two hours of black and white television images of Armstrong and Aldrin scurrying about performing their tasks captivated Americans and the entire the world.
That live connection with moonwalkers and earthlings was lost during Apollo 12 because of the damaged video camera. And without the exciting visuals, all NASA lunar scientists had was the audio of the moonwalkers until they got back to Earth with still and movie film.
Apollo 12 moonship Intrepid landed at 1:54 am EST, and the first moonwalk began around 6 am. Consequently, most of the American public awoke to the live news of two men again walking on the Moon, television commentators trying to make up for the lack of the televised action.
There were actually two walks lasting more than three hours each. It was on the second walk that Conrad and Bean walked down to the Surveyor 3, posing for photos and cutting off the camera and scoop for later analysis.
When the Navy buddies Conrad, Bean and Gordon returned to Earth on Monday, Nov. 24th, they were quarantined for two weeks like Apollo 11 astronauts as a precaution against any risk of moon germs. So their Thanksgiving Day was a very special one.
Conrad and Bean each spent a total of more than 7 hours 30 minutes on the surface of the Moon during two EVAs. But in another faux pas, the astronauts accidently left some color film on the Moon, leaving mostly black and white images to document their amazing mission.
Today, Gordon, 87, also a veteran of Gemini 11, makes appearance to sign autographs and relive his astronaut memories. After Apollo, Bean, 84, commanded the second Skylab space station mission, and literally paints his memories of his space travels. A true artist, Bean’s acrylic paintings of astronauts on the Moon sell for tens of thousands of dollars and are the focus of several books.
Apollo 12’s Bean is among seven surviving members of the dozen humans who have walked on an alien world. All in their 80s, the mortality of these unique men is all too apparent. And someday there will be no one left to point the Moon and say they once camped out there. And that will be another milestone to ponder about what was once considered man’s greatest adventure.