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 48 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.
Apollo 12 was a great Moon mission with Dick Gordon, who died in November 2017, orbiting in the moonship “Yankee Clipper” while walking on the Moon outside their spaceship “Intrepid” were commander Pete Conrad, who died in 1999, and pilot Al Bean, 85. The three Navy astronauts were best friends since flight school and one of the most cohesive spaceflight crews of all time.
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.
With three months to solve those navigation and computer problems that plagued Apollo 11, NASA engineers chose to land Apollo 12 next to the Surveyor 3 unmanned lander that proved in 1967 the lunar surface would support weight.
The spidery-looking, 700-pound space probe 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 3 landed inside the sloping walls of a small crater a couple hundred yards wide. That became “Surveyor Crater,” and above it was the landing target for Apollo 12.
During the midnight hour of Wednesday Nov. 19, 1969, best friends Pete Conrad and Alan Beam landed their moonship Intrepid landed right on top of Surveyor Crater looking down at the little robot that had been waiting for them.
After Apollo 11 in July 1969, 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 on Nov. 14th in the rain saw the mighty Saturn V, three-stage rocket struck by lightning seconds after launch, knocking the circuits out of the Command Module. The Moon rocket continued unphased by two lightning bolts, and the moonship returned to normal. The 3-day trip to the Moon got the usual media coverage, but not as comprehensive as the hour-by-hour telecast of the Apollo 11 mission.
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 a man, one giant leap for mankind.” But Conrad knew Neil thought the historic words up on the way to the Moon. Conrad told the reporter what he planned to say, and did when he stepped onto the Moon. His self-effacing words were: “Woopie! That may have been a small one for Neil, but it’s a long one for me.” Conrad said he never collected the bet.
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.
When the astronauts returned to Earth on Nov. 24th, they were quarantined for two weeks like Apollo 11 astronauts as a precaution against any risk of moon germs.
Unfortunately, the world was cheated out of seeing the two astronauts on live television standing next to the spidery-looking Surveyor 3 spacecraft. They cut off its camera system, a scoop and some tubing for analysis back on Earth. 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.
Bean literally paints his memories of his space travels. A true artist, his acrylic paintings of astronauts on the Moon sell for tens of thousands of dollars and are the focus of several books.
The other surviving moonwalkers are Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11; David Scott, Apollo 15; John Young and Charlie Duke, Apollo 16; and Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17. All in their 80s, the mortality of these unique men is all too apparent. 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 man’s greatest adventure.