45 Years Since Apollo 12: The $500 Bet and the Lightning Strike (Part 1)

Al Bean begins his descent from the hatch of the lunar module Intrepid, towards the surface at the Ocean of Storms. Photo Credit: NASA
Al Bean begins his descent from the hatch of the lunar module Intrepid toward the surface at the Ocean of Storms. Photo Credit: NASA

One thing that irritated Charles “Pete” Conrad was the public belief that astronauts were told to say certain things during their missions. He knew that when Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon in July 1969, the immortal words he spoke—”That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”—had been his own. However, there remained many naysayers who doubted that a test pilot could have dreamed such appropriately poetic words. One afternoon, Conrad and his first wife, Jane, entertained a fearsome Italian journalist named Oriana Fallaci at their Houston home. Fallaci was convinced that NASA brass had told Armstrong to say what he did … and Fallaci was not the kind of personality to be argued with. Until she met Pete Conrad, that is.

In her later career, Fallaci would lambast Ayatollah Khomeini about the “medieval” regime he had imposed on Iran, and even Henry Kissinger would endure the most “disastrous” interview of his career at her hands. Sitting with Conrad in the summer of 1969, Fallaci’s criticism turned to NASA. There was no way, she scoffed, that Armstrong could possibly have dreamed up his historic words on the spot. For his part, Conrad could not prove that Armstrong had dreamed them up, but he knew that no one had forced the words onto him. “Pity the twit who would try to script a bunch of test pilots and fighter jocks, egos fully intact, riding a rocket to the Moon,” reflected Conrad’s second wife, Nancy, in her 2005 book Rocketman.

For Pete Conrad, there was a simple solution. He was assigned to command Apollo 12 and, if the schedule held, he would be the third man to walk on the lunar surface. He told Fallaci that he would make up his first words—right there and then—and agreed a bet of $500. Fallaci, convinced that he would not get away with it, agreed. A few months later, on the desolate plain of Oceanus Procellarum, the Moon’s Ocean of Storms, Conrad hopped down the ladder of the lunar module Intrepid … and said it. Unfortunately for him, Fallaci never paid up.

Pete Conrad (right) and Al Bean are pictured aboard the lunar module simulator in October 1969, during Apollo 12 pre-flight training. Photo Credit: NASA
Pete Conrad (right) and Al Bean are pictured aboard the lunar module simulator in October 1969, during Apollo 12 pre-flight training. Photo Credit: NASA

In early 1969, many within NASA were convinced that Apollo 12, not Apollo 11, was most likely to accomplish humanity’s most exalted goal of the 20th century. It seemed inconceivable that the Apollo command, service, and lunar modules, and the Saturn V booster, together with such complexities as Lunar Orbit Rendezvous and the descent and landing profile to the Moon, could possibly be accomplished in just a few months. With Pete Conrad named as commander of Apollo 12, many eyes were on him to become the first man on the Moon. In February, NASA published a long-range planning forecast, which listed Apollo 9 as an Earth-orbit dress rehearsal in March, Apollo 10 as a lunar-orbit dress rehearsal in May, and then no fewer than three opportunities to perform a landing: Apollo 11 in July, Apollo 12 in September, and Apollo 13 in November.

So it was that by June 1969, Apollo 12 had two different personalities. If Apollo 11 did not succeed, Conrad and his crewmates—command module pilot Dick Gordon and lunar module pilot Al Bean—would inherit the mission, but if Armstrong’s flight succeeded, Apollo 12 would expand in scope to attempt the first precision landing on the Moon, not far from an old NASA spacecraft called Surveyor 3. During two moonwalks, Conrad and Bean would visit the craft, retrieve a couple of its instruments, and bring them back to Earth. By the end of July, the race to the Moon had been won and Apollo 12’s daring plan to land in the Ocean Storms, about 800 miles (1,300 km) west of the Sea of Tranquility, came into effect.

The need to make pinpoint landings was understandable, for there seemed little point in training crews to achieve specific geological objectives if they had no guarantees where their lunar modules would set down. Through no fault of their own, Armstrong and Aldrin had landed 4 miles (6 km) downrange of the intended position. The trajectory specialists had several explanations, including the “lumpiness” of the Moon’s gravitational field, but mathematician Emil Schiesser made the final breakthrough. The key was the Doppler effect: an apparent “shifting” in frequency of light or sound waves emitted by a moving object when viewed by a stationary observer.

The Surveyor 3 landing craft, backdropped by the Apollo 12 lunar module Intrepid, as viewed by Pete Conrad and Al Bean at the Ocean of Storms in November 1969. Photo Credit: NASA
The Surveyor 3 landing craft, backdropped by the Apollo 12 lunar module Intrepid, as viewed by Pete Conrad and Al Bean at the Ocean of Storms in November 1969. Photo Credit: NASA

Radio signals from lunar modules had a predictable pattern of Doppler effect, explained Andrew Chaikin in his landmark book, A Man on the Moon. That effect was most acute when the craft was flying over the limb of the Moon and at its weakest when it was over the geographical centre of the near side. “If planners could predict the pattern of Doppler shifts,” Chaikin wrote, “they could compare that information with the actual shifts they detected. The differences would in turn reveal whether the lunar module was off course and by how much.” This was the mathematical solution, but the problem remained of how to provide it in a form which could be fed into the guidance computer. It was decided essentially to “fool” the computer into thinking that the landing point had moved. It was an elegant ruse because, as Chaikin observed, it “required entering only a single number.”

Touching down with precision and so close to another spacecraft on only the second manned lunar landing was daring in the extreme. In planning the first landing, the site selectors had avoided craters. However, Surveyor 3 had landed amongst a nest of craters and was actually on the inner wall of a crater about 650 feet (200 meters) in diameter. Nevertheless, the geologists were delighted, because they wanted the astronauts to inspect and sample those craters. Assuming that Conrad and Bean managed to land within walking distance of Surveyor 3, they would examine the lander’s condition after more than two years on the Moon and remove its television camera and various other components. They would also assemble an Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) and perform extensive geological exploration of their landing site.

When a tentative planning schedule for future flights was published by NASA on 29 July 1969, it showed that Apollo 12 had now moved back a couple of months to mid-November to accommodate planning for the precision landing. Not everyone was blinkered to the reality of how difficult these mission were, however. “Though the flight of Apollo 12 may seem like history relived,” Time told its readers on 24 October, “the second American effort to land men on the Moon should be almost as dramatic as its predecessor. It will demand every bit as much daring from its all-Navy crew.”

If the Apollo 11 crew had been amiable strangers, then the men of Apollo 12 were best buddies, even before their NASA days. Chaikin tells the story of a friendship cultivated with Jim Rathmann, a car dealer in Cocoa Beach, whose contacts within General Motors allowed him to get them three matching gold Corvettes, the license plates of which were emblazoned with their respective crew positions: CDR for Conrad, CMP for Gordon, and LMP for Bean. Another anecdote is that Conrad—a long-time collector of baseball caps—tried to get a huge blue-and-white one that would fit over the helmet of his space suit; he then intended to bounce in front of the television camera on the lunar surface to give his audience a chuckle. Unfortunately, he could not think of a way of sneaking it aboard the spacecraft.

The humor also did not detract from the respect in which Conrad, Gordon, and Bean were held as one of the sharpest crews in the simulator. Their naval backgrounds had already led them to choose the name “Yankee Clipper” for the command and service modules and “Intrepid” for the lunar module, from a selection of names submitted by workers at North American and Grumman respectively. The Yankee Clipper name, in fact, had been submitted by George Glacken, a senior flight test engineer at North American; he felt that such ships of old had “majestically sailed the high seas with pride and prestige for a new America.” Intrepid came from Grumman planner Robert Lambert, who felt that it denoted “this nation’s resolute determination for continued exploration of space, stressing our astronauts’ fortitude and endurance of hardship in man’s continuing experiences for enlarging his Universe.”

Apollo 12 crewmen (from left) Dick Gordon, Pete Conrad and Al Bean listen to instructions, ahead of a water egress training exercise in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo Credit: NASA
Apollo 12 crewmen (from left) Dick Gordon, Pete Conrad, and Al Bean listen to instructions, ahead of a water egress training exercise in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo Credit: NASA

The over-indulgence of the Navy theme, however, may have proven a little too much for the Apollo 12 backup crew—Dave Scott, Al Worden, and Jim Irwin—who all happened to be Air Force officers!

The morning of 14 November 1969 dawned cold, cloudy, and drizzly at the Kennedy Space Center. Weather reconnaissance had already identified a front of rain showers 80 miles (130 km) to the north and moving southward; coupled with broken, low clouds and overcast conditions at 9,800 feet (3,000 meters), it seemed inevitable to some that the launch would be postponed. As Conrad, Gordon, and Bean ate breakfast, the storm clouds rolled overhead, and later, as they lay in their couches aboard Yankee Clipper, they could see trickles of rainwater on the window. Somehow, it had worked its way underneath the spacecraft’s boost protective cover. “The weather was erratic,” wrote Andrew Chaikin. “The skies would seem to clear for a time and then gloom over again.” Still, there were no predictions of thunderstorms or severe turbulence in the area and all of the conditions were “better” than the minimum requirements specified in launch safety rules: cloud ceilings were acceptable, wind speeds within limits, and no lightning for 20 miles (30 km). As Launch Director Walter Kapryan deliberated whether or not to proceed, Pete Conrad lightened the mood by announcing that the Navy was always ready to do NASA’s all-weather testing for it.

It was a statement he would live to regret.

Barely an hour before the scheduled 11:22 a.m. EST launch, a liquid oxygen replenishment pump failed, but the mission was cleared to fly on its backup. With more than 3,000 invited guests in attendance, including President Richard Nixon, Apollo 12 took flight precisely on schedule and quickly disappeared into the low deck of murky clouds. Pete Conrad reported the completion of the “roll program” maneuver, then added that “this baby’s really going!” From their seats, the three men were astonished when, 30 seconds into the ascent, a bright flash illuminated the cabin, accompanied by a loud roar of static in their headsets … and then the wail of the master alarm. Glancing at the instrument panel, Conrad was shocked to see more red and yellow warning lights than he had ever seen in his life. He had seen maybe three or four warning lights glow during simulations, but this looked like a Christmas tree. Even the worst training run had not shown up so many failures.

Mounted atop the Saturn V booster, Apollo 12 inches its way out of the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on 8 September 1969, bound for Pad 39A. Photo Credit: NASA
Mounted atop the Saturn V booster, Apollo 12 inches its way out of the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on 8 September 1969, bound for Pad 39A. Photo Credit: NASA

It seemed that something had gone horribly wrong with the spacecraft’s electrical system: momentarily, all three fuel cells went down, the AC power buses died, and the ship’s gyroscopic platform tumbled out of control. “Okay,” Conrad announced calmly to Mission Control, “we just lost the platform, gang. I don’t know what happened here; we had everything in the world drop out.” But what had happened? The crew was mystified. Al Bean, seated in the right-hand couch, guessed that something had severed the electrical connections between the command module and the service module, which contained the fuel cells … but, then again, the gauges were at least showing that Yankee Clipper was still drawing power, albeit at a greatly reduced rate.

What the astronauts did not know was that the Saturn V had been twice hit by lightning. In fact, the first strike, which came 36.5 seconds after liftoff, was clearly visible to spectators on the ground. The strike had hit the vehicle, traveled down the long plume of flame, and ionised gases of its exhaust all the way to the launch pad! At 1.2 miles (2 km) long, it had set a new record for the Saturn V: making it the world’s longest lightning rod. “Apollo 12 had created its own lightning,” wrote Tom Stafford in his autobiography, We Have Capture, “when this huge, ionized gas plume from the first-stage engines opened an electrical path to the ground.” Yankee Clipper’s systems shut themselves down in response to this massive electrical surge, and a second strike, some 52 seconds into the ascent, knocked out the gyroscopes. Automatic cameras close to Pad 39A recorded both strikes.

Immediately after the shutdowns, the command module automatically transitioned to backup battery power. Almost immediately, Conrad began to suspect that lightning was to blame. As the mission commander, the decision was his to make: he could abort several hundred million dollars of hardware and splash into the ocean a few minutes later … or he could hold out and wind up in orbit with a dead spacecraft. Neither option appealed. With these considerations in mind, it is unsurprising that Conrad opted to ride it out as long as possible.

Fortunately, the Saturn’s guidance system was working perfectly and kept them on a smooth track into orbit. At this point, Conrad reported that he suspected a lightning strike to have caused the power dropout. Meanwhile, Gerry Griffin, seated in the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, Texas, was undertaking his first stint as a flight director and was almost certain that he would soon be forced to call an abort. If Apollo 12 wound up in Earth orbit with a dead spacecraft, then the crew would be as good as dead. Before doing so, however, he asked John Aaron, the 24-year-old electrical, environmental, and communications officer (“EECOM”), for his recommendation.

Aaron’s computer screen showed a jumble of numbers … but he had encountered a similar problem during a training run a year earlier in which the power had been inadvertently removed from the spacecraft, and thought he knew how to resolve it. “Flight,” he called to Griffin, “try SCE to Aux.” Neither Griffin nor Capcom Gerry Carr had the foggiest notion what this switch meant, and when it was radioed to Apollo 12, neither did Pete Conrad. In fact, it was Al Bean who recognized the switch for the Signal Conditioning Equipment and moved it to the Auxiliary position. Immediately, data reappeared on the screens in Mission Control. The crew was instructed to bring the fuel cells back online by activating their reset switches. “The whole thing,” concluded Nancy Conrad, “had taken less than 30 seconds.”

In drizzle and with ominous thunderstorms and lightning in the area, Apollo 12 takes flight on 14 November 1969. Photo Credit: NASA
In drizzle and with ominous thunderstorms and lightning in the area, Apollo 12 takes flight on 14 November 1969. Photo Credit: NASA

The SCE converted raw signals from the instrumentation into data which was usable by Yankee Clipper’s displays, and Aaron had correctly deduced that it had gone offline following a major electrical surge. In Conrad’s mind, two men had effectively saved the mission: Al Bean, by finding and acting on the SCE-to-Aux instruction, and John Aaron for making the call which restored control. Gradually, as Bean brought the fuel cells and electrical buses back online, the warning lights blinked off. When Apollo 12 reached orbit, Dick Gordon set to work taking star sightings and punching numbers into the guidance computer, recovering and realigning the internal navigational platform with just moments to spare before the spacecraft emerged from the Earth’s shadow.

However, there were still no guarantees that the mission was out of the woods. No one knew if the lunar module Intrepid had been damaged by the electrical surge, and there would be no means of checking its systems until after transposition and docking … which itself had to occur after the make-or-break Translunar Injection (TLI) burn for the Moon. “I listened while Griffin was briefed by his experts,” wrote Chris Kraft in his autobiography, Flight. “The lunar module was probably unscathed, they told him. But nobody knew for sure. Go or no-go? It was a decision that only Flight could make. Gerry Griffin made it … one of the gutsiest decisions in all of Apollo and I was proud of it.”

Halfway through their second orbit, with everything returned to normal, the Saturn V’s S-IVB third stage was reignited to commence the three-day journey to the Moon. Shortly thereafter, Gordon uncoupled Yankee Clipper and performed the transposition and docking with Intrepid, extracting the spider-like lunar module from the Saturn’s final stage. “Everything’s tickety-boo,” Conrad reported, but to make sure, later that afternoon he and Bean opened the tunnel and completed a quick inspection of their lander. None of its electrical equipment had been damaged by the power surge, and by now the astronauts were in such high spirits that they even asked Mission Control to replay the voice communications from those first few, adrenaline-fed seconds of launch. It had been a hairy start for Apollo 12 and had demonstrated that a journey to the Moon could never be routine.


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.


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  1. One can only imagine the awe both Conrad and Bean experienced when, for the first time in human history, parts of a man-made object were seen, retrieved and brought back to Earth. This was truly an accomplishment for the ages in the story of spaceflight.

  2. Aaron’s “SCE to aux” has been deemed the greatest call in spaceflight.

    A year earlier, when conducting a simulation, his screen displays had turned to gibberish. On his own initiative, he and some of his back-room techs later worked out what had happened and how to fix it.

    The problem never again repeated itself in a simulation, until the Apollo 12 launch. When Aaron saw his screen display turn to garbage after the Command Module went off-line, he remembered the simulation and how the problem had been solved.

    When it comes down to who saved the mission, it was Aaron.

    On the subject of bringing a man-made object back from the Moon: in January 2010, I saw the Surveyor 3 camera in the National Air and Space Museum. It was a part of a “Painting Apollo” exhibition by Alan Bean.


  3. The caption for the crew in the LM simulator is wrong, Pete’s on the left while Al’s on the right.

  4. Ben, you are correct the in early 1969 there were three opportunities for a first landing, Apollos 11, 12 and 13. Conrad’s crew had earlier been favored to get the first landing, when they were backing up McDivitt’s crew on Apollo 8, before the decision to send Apollo 8 to the moon with Borman’s crew instead. But Armstrong was told by Tom Paine, NASA Administrator, just before launch that if things didn’t look right, not to press on with the landing anyway, because he (Paine) would give Armstrong’s crew another chance on Apollo 12! In the event, Apollo 11 was successful, but Paine also told Conrad the same thing just before Apollo 12. Lovell later said Paine did not make him the same promise.

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