Rocketing our fleshy bodies into space has never—and, some might say, can never—be truly routine, and certainly rocketing our fleshy bodies out of Earth’s gravitational well and charting a course for our nearest celestial neighbor, the Moon, carries enormous risk and has only been attempted nine times in human history. As recounted in yesterday’s history article, Apollo 12 astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad, Dick Gordon, and Al Bean endured a hair-raising opening to their November 1969 mission, when the Saturn V booster was twice struck by lightning seconds after liftoff, leaving them with the prospect of a dead spacecraft. Thankfully, the timely actions of Mission Control and the crew had brought the command and service module Yankee Clipper back to life, and the three men proceeded with their three-day journey to the Moon.
That journey, across 240,000 miles (370,000 km), was punctuated by the sounds of Earth, including country music cassettes carried by Conrad and Bean and The Archies‘ bubblegum hit “Sugar, Sugar,” sneaked aboard by Gordon. Four days after launch, at 8:47 a.m. EST on 18 November, Yankee Clipper and Intrepid entered lunar orbit. Conrad and Bean floated through the connecting tunnel to begin preparing the lander for the descent to the surface at Oceanus Procellarum, the Ocean of Storms, the following day. Everything seemed to be going well, although Conrad and Bean’s biomedical sensors seemed unwilling to co-operate: Conrad’s were causing his skin to blister, and those of Bean were producing erratic signals. Both men removed, cleaned, and reattached the electrodes without further incident and finished donning their space suits in readiness for undocking and Powered Descent. Gordon gave them a few words of last-minute advice: “Let’s go over this again, Pete,” he grinned. “The gas is on the right; the brake is on the left!” With this last spell of banter behind them, Intrepid and Yankee Clipper parted company at 11:16:03 p.m. EST on 18 November, beginning a 2.5-hour sweeping curve to the Ocean of Storms.
Understanding the nature of the terrain upon which Conrad and Bean would walk was aided by the presence of the unmanned Surveyor 3 landing craft, which, after bouncing several times, had touched down on the inner slope of a crater on 19 April 1967 and then transmitted a series of remarkable photographs of its surroundings. The landing site was located on photographs taken from orbit by one of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft flown between 1966-67 to extensively map the Moon and reconnoitre potential landing sites for Apollo.
“Ewen Whitaker … was a member of the Surveyor team,” wrote Eric Jones in the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, “and had the responsibility of identifying the landing sites. As the first pictures came in from Surveyor 3, it was immediately apparent that the spacecraft had landed in a crater. It was a relatively featureless crater, but there were a number of good-sized rocks scattered around, particularly to the north of the spacecraft. One pair of large rocks looked as though they were almost touching each other and it seemed to Whitaker that he might be able to find them when he started to examine the appropriate Orbiter pictures through the microscope. Within a couple of days, he was sure he had them; the rocks looked like mere pinpricks through the microscope, but there were other rocks visible as well and they made a pattern which matched up nicely with the Surveyor 3 pictures. Whitaker had found the crater.”
The 650-foot (200-meter) crater would come to be known as “Surveyor Crater,” and it formed part of a somewhat distinctive cluster, which, when viewed from Conrad and Bean’s angle of approach, closely resembled a fat snowman with the unmanned probe sitting squarely within its belly. By using Lunar Orbiter images and photographs taken by the Apollo 8, 10, and 11 crews, it was possible for trajectory planners to construct a fairly realistic topographical model of the region in which Intrepid would land. Indeed, during training the televised view through Conrad’s left-hand window would be so realistic that, on landing day, 19 November, he would be astounded at how well the planners had done their jobs.
To better familiarise themselves with the spot, the astronauts had given nicknames to the other craters which outlined other parts of the snowman’s body: Head, Left Foot, and Right Foot, to identify just a handful. Conrad hoped to land in what looked to be a relatively flat, smooth place close to Surveyor Crater—he called it “Pete’s Parking Lot”—but, either way, he knew that he had to touch down relatively close to target to allow them to walk over to the probe without difficulty.
Still, it was with some scepticism, therefore, that Intrepid and Yankee Clipper parted company, for none of the astronauts were entirely convinced that the trajectory planners would indeed bring them directly down toward Surveyor Crater. Earlier that day, as he tucked into a breakfast of Canadian bacon, Conrad told Bean: “I don’t know what I’m gonna see when I pitch over. You know, I’m either gonna say ‘Aaaaaa! There it is!’ or I’m gonna say ‘Freeze it, I don’t recognise nothin’!’”
After undocking, Gordon had tracked them against an endless backdrop of craters with the command module’s 28-power sextant until they disappeared from view. On the far side of the Moon, during their 13th orbit, Intrepid’s descent engine roared to life for 29 seconds to reduce their perilune altitude to just 9 miles (15 km). Passing over Mare Nectaris, the lander flew on its “back,” with the descent engine pointing along the flight path, then, under computer control, pitched over until it was almost vertical and the two men were granted their first glimpse of the lunar landscape beneath them. They were astonished. Despite all their doubts, there was the snowman, right ahead of them.
“I think I see my crater,” Conrad told Bean. “I’m not sure.” At first, it looked like a maze, but then he caught sight of it and blurted out: “There it is! Son-of-a-gun, right down the middle of the road!” A conversation a few weeks earlier with trajectory specialist Dave Reed had led him to request a touchdown in the Surveyor Crater; but now, as he beheld the landscape for real, Conrad decided to shift his aim-point a little shorter and to the north—in other words, directly into Pete’s Parking Lot. From his vantage point, the area looked more like a battlefield, and Conrad began making adjustments with his hand controller, pitching Intrepid backward slightly to reduce their forward velocity, passing around Surveyor Crater’s northern rim, and eyeballing a smooth spot to the north-west, close to Head Crater.
Moving lower now, with barely 100 feet (30 meters) to go, the descent engine began to kick up so much dust that it obscured the landing site. In the strange airless environment that he and Bean were preparing to visit, the dust did not billow around, but shot radially outward in bright streaks. As he “felt” his way down using only rocks sticking up through the sheet of dust, he was relying on both eyeballs through the window and Bean’s reading of the instruments. Sometime around 1:54 a.m. EST on 19 November 1969, one of Intrepid’s footpads found alien soil and the Lunar Contact light glowed blue. Instantly, Conrad’s hand went to the Engine Stop button and the lander dropped the last half-meter or so to the surface.
“Good landing, Pete!” yelled Bean. “Out-standing, man!”
Conrad knew that he was close to Surveyor Crater, but since there was no window in the back of Intrepid’s cabin, he had no way of knowing exactly how far away they were from its rim. The landmarks which had seemed so obvious during the final minutes of descent were now less conspicuous. They knew that Head Crater should have been directly in front of them, but it took them some time digesting the scene to finally realize that, yes, there it was. They were close to its eastern rim and were looking directly away from the sunlight of the early lunar morning, and with a lack of color variation the crater was hard to see.
It was actually Dick Gordon, in orbit aboard Yankee Clipper, who managed to nail down their co-ordinates. During his first overhead pass, he spotted the snowman … and then saw Intrepid’s long shadow. “He’s on the Surveyor Crater!” Gordon jubilantly told Mission Control. “He’s about a fourth of the Surveyor Crater diameter to the north-west … I’ll tell you, he’s the only thing that casts a shadow down there.” A few seconds later, he added, with clear excitement in his voice, that he could see Surveyor 3 itself. The eastern wall of the crater was in shadow, but the body of the unmanned lander was catching the Sun. In fact, Conrad and Bean had set their lander down a mere 530 feet (163 meters) from the old craft, which by any measure was a precision landing.
Their next task was to go outside, and they could not resist a chuckle when Capcom Gerry Carr advised them to rest before their first walk on alien soil. “After all the training, preparation, the dreams and visions of humankind for thousands of years,” wrote Conrad’s second wife, Nancy, in her book Rocketman, “and here they were, the third and fourth in the history of the species to set foot on this thing … and you expect us to sit down for a smoke break?” As with Armstrong on Apollo 11, the chance to rest had been conservatively built into their schedule to allow for the possibility of the descent to the surface being delayed by one orbit; but now that they were here, Conrad elected to begin EVA-1 at the earliest opportunity.
Like a couple of children eager to go outside and play in the snow, he and Bean proceeded through the two-hour effort to don their suits. Four and a half hours after landing, they made one final check and Conrad radioed Houston for permission to depressurize Intrepid’s cabin.
“Houston, are we Go for EVA?”
“Stand by, Intrepid. We’ll be right with you,” replied Capcom Ed Gibson.
“Stand by?” asked Conrad, incredulously. “You guys oughtta be spring-loaded!”
Seconds later, after checking the status boards, Gibson gave them the go-ahead, and as the final wisps of oxygen left the cabin the astronauts were in a near-pure vacuum. Within minutes, Conrad had squeezed himself through the hatch and onto the porch. He drew the lanyard to deploy the Modular Equipment Storage Assembly (MESA) on the side of the descent stage, on which was the television camera, and then dropped down the ladder and onto the surface.
Without doubt, Oriana Fallaci’s comment about astronauts being unable to speak for themselves popped into his mind. Conrad was the second-shortest astronaut in the corps and he had a $500 bet to win, so he spoke: “Whoopie! That may have been a small one for Neil, but it’s a long one for me!”
This third part of this article will appear tomorrow.