The Moon will be irresistible in the early evening sky as nearly everyone will glance up at our nearest celestial neighbor 240,000 miles away.
But few will remember that on the minds of Americans 49 years ago this week was the second Moon landing by Apollo 12.
That follow up after Apollo 11’s historic July 1969 landing on the Sea of Tranquility saw Pete Conrad become the third and Alan Bean the fourth man to walk on the Moon, this time in a pinpoint landing beside an old NASA spacecraft in the Ocean of Storms.
Conrad, Bean and Command Module pilot Dick Gordon were perhaps one of the most dynamic and close-knit crew of astronauts to ever fly in space. All three have died. Indeed, November 2018 finds 11 of the 24 Moon voyagers alive, including just four of the 12 moonwalkers.
Conrad and Gordon were best friends from their days flying Korean War combat missions in the Navy. And they flew in space together on Gemini 11, testing rendezvous and spacewalking techniques. Space rookie Bean was a student of Conrad’s in
Navy flight school, and the three flying sailors had a camaraderie that was hard to match.
After leaving NASA, Gordon was an executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints football team, and headed a space engineering and software firm. He died at age 88 in 2017.
Bean commanded the second Skylab space station mission of 54 days. He then turned his attention to painting about his astronaut experiences. Bean died in May2018 at age 86 and was a very successful artist whose paintings of the Moon sell for $30,000 and up—some including moon dust in the paint, which was shook out of his Apollo mission patches torn off his spacesuit.
Conrad was known for his irrepressible spirit, sense of humor, talent as a pilot and skills as an astronaut. His gapped middle teeth were notable in his every-present smile. He died from internal injuries in 1999 at age 69 when thrown from his motorcycle when rounding a turn. The freak, fatal accident came after the danger of four rocket blast offs the Earth and one off the Moon—Gemini 5, Gemini 11, Apollo 12 and Skylab 1 (where he and two crewmen repaired a damaged solar panel, saving America’s first space station).
Where Apollo 11 was the historic get-to-the-Moon-and-get-back triumph of one of mankind’s oldest desires, the Apollo 12 landing was a demonstration of precise, pinpoint landing and true exploration.
On Nov. 19, 1969, Conrad landed the Lunar Module spaceship named “Intrepid” just 600 feet beside the unmanned Surveyor 3 spacecraft, which landed two and one-half years earlier in the Ocean of Storms. That put an exclamation point on President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to land Americans on the Moon before the end of the 1960s.
The accurate Apollo 12 landing was a major success after Apollo 11 missed its mark by four miles. Conrad and Bean made two excursions on the surface of 4 hours each and brought back some tubing and the camera of the Surveyor 3 lander, along with 75 pounds of moon rock and dust.
Gordon, in the Command Module called “Yankee Clipper,” would have walked on the Moon himself as commander of Apollo 19 had the United States Congress not canceled proposed Moon missions Apollo 18-21.
Several events will be remembered for Apollo 12. First, the fully-fueled, 360-foot Saturn V rocket was launched in a rain storm and struck by lightning just 60 seconds into launch, knocking out electrical power in the Kitty Hawk spacecraft while the powerful rocket continued to fly (President Richard Nixon was in attendance, maybe relaxing the weather-flight rules).
While alarms blared and in the dark, the astronauts spent a few scary seconds resetting circuit breakers with help from mission control rocket scientists. Meanwhile, the computers on the Saturn V performed flawlessly putting them in Earth orbit. Everything checked out fine, and the Saturn’s third stage rocketed them to the Moon.
Another problem on the Moon that probably cost NASA some much needed public relations (the Vietnam War was competing with money needed to continue the last four Apollo missions) was the lack of live television from the surface, like Apollo 11.
While carrying the color television camera just two minutes after unstowing it, Bean accidentally pointed it at the Sun, burning out the video sensor. Lost was some valuable live television that would have dramatically shown the astronauts walking up to the Surveyor 3 spacecraft that had been such a big, world-wide story when it landed in April 1967. There was still the voice transmission of the astronauts on the Moon, but any photos had to wait for their return to Earth four days later.
Pete Conrad, whose nickname was “Tweety Bird,” was one of the all-time jokesters among the astronaut corp. When asked by a reporter what NASA had directed him to say when he took his first steps on the Moon, Conrad replied that NASA didn’t tell Neil Armstrong, nor would they tell him what to say.
The reporter bet Conrad $500 that wasn’t the case, suggesting that NASA had scripted for astronauts what to say at such an historic moment. Stepping off the ladder to the surface, the 5-foot, 7-inch Conrad, the third man on the Moon, said: “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that was a long one for me.”
Conrad always said he never collected the $500 bet from the reporter. But his point was well made: NASA was too concerned about the technical aspects of the mission to worry about words uttered by the astronauts.
Apollo 12 added confidence in the landing techniques to place astronauts just about anywhere on the Moon that NASA wanted. Which they did four more times before the Moon landing program ended with Apollo 17 in December 1972.
So, as you look up at the Moon this week, rest assured that someday humans will return for good. That is NASA’s goal sometime around 2030, but don’t be surprised if Russian or Chinese astronauts are awaiting their arrival.