Everyone knows the story of Apollo 11: Armstrong and Aldrin, “one small step” and the flag and how the world stopped to watch. You also know the story of Apollo 13: If you were around at the time, how the country sat on pins and needles, hoping the crew made it; if you weren’t, you probably learned about it because of Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, and Ed Harris’s refusal to lose an American in space on his watch.
But what about Apollo 12? Launched 50 years ago this week, it was the second Apollo flight to land on the Moon. Two Americans strode the surface of our satellite for just over a day before they rejoined their Command Module pilot and made the journey home. In between an epic moment in time and an amazing story of a rescue in space, three astronauts mounted their own successful, historic mission. Here are five forgotten facts about Apollo 12.
1. The Commander Became a Space Legend
As a child, Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr. overcame early academic struggles that were brought on by dyslexia; once he learned to deal with that, he was admitted to Princeton and received a Navy ROTC scholarship. He earned his degree in Aeronautical Engineering and became a Naval pilot; he was inducted into NASA’s second class of astronauts, following the Mercury Seven. Conrad flew on Gemini 5 in 1965, commanded Gemini 11 in 1966, and was given command of Apollo 12; during the mission, he became the third person to walk on the Moon. After the that mission, he also commanded Skylab 2, which was the first crewed mission to Skylab. His leadership in repairing damage that the vessel suffered at its launch led President Jimmy Carter to award him the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978. Ironically, after going to space three times, landing on the Moon, and logging over 6,500 hours of flight-time on Earth, Conrad died in a motorcycle accident in 1999.
2. The “Fourth Man” Captured Space on Canvas
Lunar Module pilot Alan Bean landed with Conrad and was the fourth man on the Moon. He later flew on the Skylab 3 mission in 1973. Upon retiring from NASA in 1981, he took up a career as a painter, depicting space and lunar landscapes from the unique perspective of someone that had actually been there. His paintings were shown at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 2009 as part of the 40th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 landing. One thing that makes Bean’s paintings unique is that he added actual granules of moon dust to his work taken from the mission patches he was allowed to keep from his space suit. Bean passed away just over a year ago, in early November of 2018.
3. Pilot Richard Gordon Went from Flight to Football
Apollo 12 Command Module pilot Richard Gordon, Jr. did it all. In addition to being a Navy pilot and astronaut, he was a chemist, a test pilot, and eventually an executive in professional sports. While he never set foot on the Moon, he was at the helm of the Command Module and made 45 orbits of our lunar neighbor. Prior to their Apollo adventure, Gordon had served on the USS Ranger carrier with Conrad, and the pair had been on Gemini 11 together as well. Gordon was originally supposed to walk on the Moon on the Apollo 18 mission, but that flight was later scrubbed due to budget cuts at NASA. After he left NASA, Gordon worked as Executive Vice President of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints for four years. He would go on to hold executive positions at a number of companies while also serving on prominent charitable boards like the March of Dimes (Mother’s March), the Boy Scouts of America, and the Boys Club of Greater New Orleans. Gordon passed in 2017.
4. Lightning Does Strike Twice
Just over 30 seconds after lift-off on November 14, the Saturn V rocket was hit by lightning, taking the fuel cells and other systems offline. Remarkably, another lightning strike less than 20 seconds after the first one took out the altitude indicator. Coincidentally, the crew had trained for that exact series of system losses; when the fuel cells went down, Bean noticed immediately that EECOM (Electrical, Environmental, and Consumables Manager) John Aaron was rerouting power from Mission Control. Bean got the fuel cells back online, and when the craft achieved Earth orbit, the crew checked all the systems out before proceeding to the Moon. Though the twin strikes had temporarily taken things offline, no permanent damage had occurred.
5. Their Mission Included a Research Station.
Apollo 12 did some of the things that you’d expect. Conrad and Bean collected rock and soil samples, took photographs (including spectrographic pictures), and set up equipment to measure seismic activity, magnetic files, and more. Those pieces belonged to the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP), a nuclear-powered station that would take measurements and electronically send them back to Earth. Bean and Conrad spend just under eight total hours on the Moon, broken into two distinct chunks that were just under four hours each. The total mission time from launch to splashdown return was 10 days, 4 hours, 36 minutes, and 24 seconds.
Apollo 12 splashdown. (Uploaded to YouTube by British Movietone)
While Apollo 12 didn’t capture the popular imagination in quite the same way that Apollo 11 did, it’s important to note that this was still only the SECOND time in history that Earthlings went to the Moon. An effort was made to take color film of much of the lunar activity undertaken by Conrad and Bean; unfortunately, the camera was pointed directly at the sun by accident, burning out the tube and killing the camera’s ability to broadcast. Still millions tuned in for the launch, just as millions more would eagerly wait for word of the safe return of Apollo 13; by Apollo 14, however, interest in Moon landings would drop sharply. The Apollo program ended with Apollo 17 in 1972, which was the last time humans ventured past Earth’s orbit.
Today, there is occasional talk of missions back to the Moon and onward to Mars. We may not be as captivated by the thought of sending people to our nearest neighbor, but it remains a pinnacle of American technological achievement. As one of the space program’s biggest supporters, President John Kennedy, once said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Featured Image: Astronaut Alan L. Bean, Lunar Module pilot for the Apollo 12 lunar landing mission, holds a container filled with lunar soil collected while exploring the lunar surface. Astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr., commander, who took this picture, is reflected in the helmet visor. (NASA.gov)
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