Forty-five years ago, in November 1969, the human race comprised an estimated three billion souls on Planet Earth … and three others. A quarter of a million miles away, Apollo 12 astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad, Dick Gordon, and Al Bean were in the midst of preparing for humanity’s second piloted landing on the surface of the Moon. Coming only months after Neil Armstrong’s historic “one small step,” there were few who seriously believed that traveling to our closest celestial neighbor could ever be routine, and Apollo 12 demonstrated the very real dangers of space exploration … as well as the rewards it could reap.
As recounted in yesterday’s article, the mission almost ended as soon as it began, when the Saturn V booster was twice hit by lightning only seconds after liftoff on 14 November. Only the prompt actions of the astronauts and Mission Control to bring the systems of command module Yankee Clipper back online saved Apollo 12 from winding up as a dead spacecraft in Earth orbit. Three days later, after a 240,000-mile (370,000-km) journey across cislunar space, the three men reached the Moon and entered orbit. Conrad and Bean boarded the lunar module Intrepid and left Gordon and Yankee Clipper behind, heading for a touchdown on a flat, batten patch of the surface, known as “Oceanus Procellarum,” the Ocean of Storms.
When they arrived, they were not alone.
But this was no Apollo 18-type horror story, for their mechanical companion, which lay a mere 530 feet (163 meters) away, was NASA’s unmanned Surveyor 3 spacecraft. As part of its desire to accomplish ever more precise landings on the Moon, Conrad and Bean had been specifically targeted to touch down close to the craft—which had arrived on the lunar surface in April 1967—and remove instruments to bring home for analysis. At 6:44 a.m. EST on 19 November 1969, Conrad became the third human in history to set foot on another world.
His first moments were spent learning to walk in gravitational conditions which were barely one-sixth of what 39 years of life had prepared him for on Earth. Al Bean joined him a few minutes later. Both men reported that they never got tired in the bouncy lunar gravity, although the limited flexibility of their pressurized space suits meant that “walking” often took the form of a sort of stiff-legged lope: running with straight legs, landing flat-footed, then pushing off with the toes. There were other aspects of Moonwalking which were quite different to their pre-flight simulations. The fine lunar dust quickly covered everything and, before long, the astronauts’ pure-white suits were black from the knees down. Each time they moved, small clouds of dust kicked up around their feet, and they grew nervous about the effect of this charcoal-like stuff on the working parts of their suits and on Intrepid’s systems.
One of Conrad’s earliest tasks was to collect a sample of lunar material from the Ocean of Storms. This was easier said than done. “We learned things that we could never have found out in a simulation,” he recalled later. “A simple thing like shovelling soil into a sample bag, for instance, was an entirely new experience. First, you had to handle the shovel differently, stopping it before you would have on Earth and tilting it to dump the load much more steeply, after which the whole sample would slide off suddenly.”
Meanwhile, Bean set to work retrieving the television camera. He would mount it on a tripod and position it in such a way that his terrestrial audience could watch their activities. However, as he carried the camera away from Intrepid, Mission Control told him that the camera seemed to have malfunctioned. When initial attempts to rectify the problem proved fruitless, Bean shook the camera, then tapped it with his hammer. Nothing worked. It later became clear that in carrying the camera on its tripod, Bean had accidentally pointed it toward the Sun and had burned the light-sensitive coating on its vidicon tube. Audiences back on Earth had seen a bobbing image of the lunar landscape, then a brief glimpse of the Sun, then a meaningless pattern. Although the television camera was not critical for the mission, its loss was a public-relations disaster for NASA on its second lunar landing.
The early part of the excursion was akin, in some ways, to Apollo 11. Conrad and Bean set up the U.S. flag and found the process of hammering the flagstaff into the soil relatively straightforward, although the hinge of the horizontal rod failed, leaving the flag draped around the staff. They also unveiled a plaque on Intrepid’s ladder leg. Unlike the plaque aboard Eagle and, indeed, the plaques aboard subsequent Apollo landers, that of Apollo 12 did not have a depiction of Earth and was textured differently; instead of black letters on polished stainless steel, its letters were in polished stainless steel against a brushed-flat background.
Much of their time would be spent gathering samples, photography, and setting up the first Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) scientific station. To ensure that they did not stray from the timeline, each man had a checklist attached to the cuff of his space suit and this ran through what he was supposed to do. There were also a few “additions” to Conrad and Bean’s spring-bound cuff checklists, thanks to the antics of their backups, Dave Scott and Jim Irwin.
“Part of my job,” wrote Scott in his autobiography, Two Sides of the Moon, “was to keep some levity in the game, keep things light and loose, relieve the tension when I could. In the last days before Pete and the crew were due to launch we got a cartoonist to draw some sketches to stick round their flight plans. We stuck some pictures of Playboy bunnies in there, too, which brought a few laughs.” Each of the images was accompanied by a lewd and suggestive comment, mostly about inspection of geological features: “Don’t forget to describe the protuberances” or “Seen any hills and valleys?”, for example. Conrad would occasionally ask Bean to flip to a certain procedure, revealing only that he “might need your help on this.” Controllers who knew Conrad were aware that he had a tendency to chuckle and hum to himself whilst working, but even they were surprised when, on occasion, he broke into a hearty cackle for no obvious reason.
Only Scott and Irwin knew the truth. …
The concluding part of this article will appear tomorrow.