Space Sunday: Apollo 12, 50 years on

NASA’s official Apollo 50th anniversary logo. Credit: NASA

Fifty years ago, on Friday, November 14th, 1969, the second Apollo Saturn V intended to place humans on the Moon lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Centre. Aboard it were mission commander Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr, Command Module Pilot Richard F. Gordon Jr, and Lunar Module Pilot Alan L. Bean.

Coming four months after the launch of Apollo 11, the Apollo 12 mission was intended to extend lunar surface operations, albeit modestly. Armstrong and Aldrin spent a total of 21 hours and 37 minutes on the Moon and completed a single surface EVA, Conrad and Bean would spend 31 hours and 29 minutes on the lunar surface, performing two EVAs in the process. However, it became the mission that almost had to be aborted thanks to a pair of incidents that occurred in the first minute after lift-off.

The crew for the flight were of mixed experience: Conrad was making his third trip into space, having flown the Gemini 5 and Gemini 11 missions; Gordon was making his second flight, having partnered with Conrad during Gemini 11; Bean was on his first flight into space. Conrad had joined NASA as part of the second astronaut intake group that included Neil Armstrong, while Gordon and Bean were both part of the third intake alongside of Edwin Aldrin.

The Apollo 12 crew (l to r): Commander, Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr.; Command Module pilot, Richard F. Gordon Jr.; and Lunar Module pilot, Alan L. Bean. Credit: NASA

Conrad joined NASA from the US Navy, where he was regarded as an outstanding carrier-based fighter pilot and first-class test pilot and flight instructor. He was regarded as one of the best pilots in his group, and was among the first of his group to be assigned a Gemini mission, flying alongside Mercury veteran, Gordon Cooper, the second American to orbit the Earth. He was also one of the most diminutive of the astronauts, standing just 5ft 6.5 inches tall. However, he made up for his small stature by being at times outspoken and a little irreverent (he facetiously referred to the Gemini 5 capsule as a “flying garbage can” during the then record-setting mission of almost 8 days in orbit, on account of the cramped size of the vehicle). While these qualities rankled some in NASA’s management, his forthrightness allowed him to become central to testing many spacecraft systems essential to the Apollo programme. These tests included the Gemini 11 mission with Gordon, and which remains the highest ever Earth orbital mission completed to date, with an apogee of 1,369 km (851 mi).

Conrad has a further distinction: under NASA’s original plans, he was selected to command the back-up crew for Apollo 8, the first test flight of the Lunar Module in Earth orbit. Under the standing protocol of back-up crews moving to a “prime” mission slot three missions later, he was in line to command Apollo 11. However, delays in getting the Lunar Module ready for flight meant that Apollo 8 and Apollo 9 were swapped, shunting his command slot to Apollo 12.

Both Gordon and Bean also came to NASA from the US Navy, where they had also served as fighter pilots before transitioning to test pilots. Both also served with Conrad during their military careers: Gordon with Conrad aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, where the two shared a cabin and had become good friends, while Bean was trained by Conrad when becoming a test pilot, the two also forming a friendship in the process.

(l) The crew arrive at LC39-A ahead of the Apollo 12 launch. (r) Apollo 12 lifts-off, November 14th, 1969. Note the wet conditions apparent in both pictures. Credit: NASA

Apollo 12 launched from Cape Kennedy into a cloudy, rain-swept sky. 36.5 seconds into the flight, lightning struck the top of the vehicle and travelled through it and its ionised exhaust plume to strike the launch gantry it had just cleared. Protective circuits on the fuel cells in the service module (SM) took them off-line, along with much of the Command Module’s flight systems.

Having struck the Saturn V 36.5 second after the launch of Apollo 12, lightning travelled down through the vehicle and through its ionised exhaust plume to discharge on the launch pad gantry. Credit: NASA

15.5 seconds later lightning again struck, disabling the attitude indicator and garbling telemetry being received by Mission Control. However, neither strike affected the Saturn V rocket’s instrument unit, allowing the vehicle to continue to climb towards orbit as planned.

The loss of the fuel cells placed the CSM on battery power, but this wasn’t up to the task of providing all the power necessary to power the Command Module’s instruments for the entire mission. Nor could the fuel cells be brought back on-line.

Flight Director Gerry Griffin was considering calling for an orbital abort, despite fears the lightning strikes may have affected the Command Module’s parachute deployment pyrotechnics, when John Aaron, the Electrical, Environmental and Consumables Manager (EECOM) realised he’s seen a similar pattern of telemetry disruption during an equipment test, when a power supply unexpectedly failed.

“Flight, EECOM. Try SCE to Aux,” he stated over the radio, recalling an obscure back-up power supply switch-over.

His call went unrecognised by Griffin, the CapCom, astronaut Gerald Carr, and Conrad on Apollo 12. However, rookie Alan Bean remembered the SCE switch from a training incident a year earlier during a rare simulation of such a failure, and flicked it over. The move brought the fuel cells back to power, and both Aaron and Bean were credited with saving the mission.

After the excitement of launch, the flight settled into “routine”, with Apollo 12 reaching the Moon late on November 17th, 1969. An initial engine burn put the combined Command and Service Module (CSM) Yankee Clipper and Lunar Module (LM) Intrepid into and elliptical orbit of 110.4 x 312 km (69 x 195 mi). On November 18th, this was adjusted to 99.2 x 121.6 km (62 x 76 mi), and on November 19th, Conrad and Bean entered to the Lunar Module ready for their descent and landing.

This began after Intrepid had separated from Yankee Clipper, with an engine burn on the far side of the Moon, out of contact with Earth. The landing site was set within a region of Oceanus Procellarum, the Sea of Storms that had been given the official name of Mare Cognitum (Known Sea) on account of it having been visited by three automated probes: Russia’s Luna 5 and America’s Surveyor 3, and Ranger 7. The aim was to put Intrepid down in a precisely-denoted area within walking distance of Surveyor 3, and which Conrad had dubbed “Pete’s Parking Lot”.

Apollo 12 Lunar Module Intrepid as seen from the Command Module Yankee Clipper, November 19th, 1969, prior to commencing its descent for landing. Credit: NASA

As it turned out, Conrad had to land the LM 177m (580 ft) short of his “parking lot” due to the latter being too rocky to risk a landing. This meant he and Bean landed much closer to Surveyor 3 than desired. The distance was important as scientists fear the Intrepid could smoother and contaminate the robot lander with dust kicked-up by its landing motor. As it turned out, while the motor did kick up a lot of surface dust, it acted as a sandblaster, that scoured the side of Surveyor 3, 183m (600 ft) away, almost clean of the dust that had accumulated on it as a result of solar wind action.

The first EVA started some 4.5 hours after the Intrepid landed. Following the Apollo 11 protocol, Conrad  – as mission commander – descended the ladder to the Lunar surface first. However, his first words on setting foot on the Moon were hardly as deep as Armstrong’s – and also alluded to his own lack of inches:

Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me!

– Charles Conrad Jr on setting foot on the Moon

However, rather than being an off-the-cuff quip typical of Conrad, the statement was actually pre-planned; the result of a US $500 bet he made during a pre-launch interview with Italian reporter Oriana Fallaci that he’d say something typically “‘Pete'”. Conrad would later state he never collected on the bet.

Charles “Pete” Conrad on the ladder of the Lunar Module Intrepid, November 19th, 1969, and about to descend to the surface of the Moon. Credit: NASA

During the first EVA, Conrad logged 3 hours, 39 minutes on the Moon’s surface and Bean 2 hours, 58 minutes. They both spent time deploying equipment, notably the first full Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP – Apollo 11 had only carried an “early” version of the package), together with a SNAP-27 RTG to provide power to the science instruments. Bean was also tasked with deploying a remote colour television camera, but inadvertently pointed it towards the Sun, destroying one of its tubes and breaking surface television coverage. Both men also took numerous photographs and gathered samples of rocks and a 40 cm (16 in) core sample.

The second EVA took place on November 20th, 1969. This included gathering 70 pounds of rock and dirt, together with further core samples from depths of up to a 1 metre (33 in). Conrad and Bean then completed a traverse around the local area to examine several small craters and concluding with a visit to Surveyor 3. Here they stripped the lander of some of its parts to return them to Earth for analysis. One of these parts, a section of television cable from the lander’s camera system, apparently revealed common bacterium Streptococcus mitis, within it.

An image by Alan Bean showing Charles Conrad standing alongside Surveyor 3 with the Lunar Module Intrepid on the horizon. Credit: A. Bean / NASA

This led to a claim that the bacteria had survived both the pre-launch vehicle sterilisation process and 2.5 years in the harsh lunar environment. However, the claim was disputed when it was noted that not only did Apollo 12 not have the correct environment to prevent any contamination of the Surveyor parts when handled in the space craft, but that the protocols initially used to handle the parts on their return to Earth were insufficient to prevent possible contamination. As a result, the findings from the examination of the Surveyor parts remain controversial.

In all, Conrad amassed 7 hours 45 minutes on the Moon’s surface and Bean slightly less. Six hours after returning to the Lunar Module following their second EVA, the time spent resting and then preparing for the return to orbit, they lifted-off, rendezvousing with Gordon and the Yankee Clipper. After transferred their samples and themselves to the Command Module, Conrad and Bean said farewell to the Intrepid’s ascent section, which was jettisoned and allowed to crash back into the surface of the Moon to provide predictable impact data for the ALSEP seismometer.

Intended to strike the Moon 9.5 km (6 mi) from the ALSEP package, the ascent module missed its intended crash site by 54 km (roughly 33 mi). However, the seismometer on the ASLEP registered the impact, estimating it to be equal that of one ton of TNT being exploded on the lunar surface. To the surprise of seismologists, strong signals from the impact lasted for more than a half hour, and weaker signals persisted for around an hour.

The flight back to Earth was an uneventful as the outward flight, with Yankee Clipper returning to Earth on November 24, 1969, to splash down at 20:58 UTC in the Pacific Ocean approximately 800 km (500 mi) east of American Samoa. During splashdown, a 16 mm film camera dislodged from storage and struck Bean in the forehead, rendering him briefly unconscious. He suffered a mild concussion and needed six stitches. Crew and command module were recovered by the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, the same vessel used in the recovery of the Apollo 11 crew and command capsule. Like the Apollo 11 crew, Bean, Conrad and Cooper started a 21-day period inside the Mobile Quarantine Facility, just in case they had picked up any lunar bugs.

The Fantasy: Conrad, Gordon, Bean. Celebrating Apollo 12 in 1992 by Alan Bean. Gordon actually remained aboard the Apollo 12 Command and Service Module in orbit around the Moon. Courtesy of alanbean.com

Richard Gordon opted to resign from NASA in 1972, joining the private sector. Conrad and Bean remained with the agency, with both men participating in NASA’s orbital Skylab programme, with Conrad commanding the first crewed mission to the facility (Skylab 2), which turned into a rescue mission for the laboratory, as it had suffered significant damage during its launch. Following the success of Skylab 2 (confusingly referred to as “Skylab I” on its mission patch) Alan Bean commanded the second crews flight to the station (Skylab 3, also accidentally referenced as “Skylab II” on the mission patch). Conrad retired from NASA in 1973, following his tour aboard Skylab, will Bean remaining with the agency until 1981. Both also pursued successful private sector careers, with Bean also becoming an artist of note as well.

Coming after Apollo 11, Apollo 12 was nothing short of “routine”, outside of the initial launch incident. It formed exactly the kind of mission NASA wanted Apollo to be: calm, collected, and with all its science goals achieved. As the second mission in the series, it still attracted a strong audience on television, but with its completion NASA hoped it stood to usher in a whole series of Apollo missions of increasing complexity  in the coming years.

Another portrait of Conrad, Gordon and Bean. Credit: NASA

As a part of the 50th anniversary remembrance of the mission’s launch, the crew of the International Space Station donned period wardrobes including white button-down shirts, narrow ties, pocket protectors and black horn-rimmed glasses of the kind that typified the “mission control look” of the 1960s and 1970s, as a means of paying tribute to the flight control and ground support teams who made the Apollo missions possible.

Sadly, none of the Apollo 12 crew remain alive to witness the 50th anniversary of their mission. In 1999, “Pete” Conrad tragically died from internal injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. He was 69 at the time, and police confirmed he was wearing a helmet at the time of the accident and travelling within the speed limit. Richard Gordon passed away at the age of 88 in November 2017, and Alan Bean at the age of 86 in May 2018. You can read my own tribute to Alan Bean him in The Moonwalker and the artist.

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