45 Years Since Apollo 12: The Surveyor and the Lonely Man (Part 4)

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

Within minutes of arriving on the Moon’s surface, early on 19 November 1969, Apollo 12 astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad began erecting an S-band communications antenna, but this was rendered redundant when crewmate Al Bean ruined the television camera, as recounted in yesterday’s history article. Bean’s major task was to remove the two pallets of Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) equipment from the rear of Intrepid’s descent stage. If the television camera had been working, he would have relocated it to provide the audience with a clear view of this activity. After connecting the two pallets to a horizontal bar, he would lug them to the site chosen for their deployment.

Powered by a plutonium dioxide nuclear generator, the ALSEP consisted of a central station and a number of experiments, namely: a seismometer to record quakes and tremors; a suprathermal ion detector to characterise the low-energy positive ions of a near-surface ionosphere; a solar-wind spectrometer to study the electrons and protons of the solar wind which impinge on the lunar surface; a magnetometer to conduct detailed magnetic-field analyses; an instrument to measure the density of any ambient atmosphere and any variations of a random character or correlated with local lunar time or solar activity; and a dust detector, this time mounted on the Central Station, to provide engineering data on the rate at which dust accumulated on the ALSEP as a measure of the degradation of its thermal surface.

The central station was switched on at 9:21 a.m. EST on 19 November, a couple of hours into the Moonwalk, and would be shut down, along with the other ALSEPs in September 1977. During its eight-year operational lifetime, it returned a wealth of data about conditions on Earth’s only natural satellite. In fact, when Intrepid’s ascent stage was sent crashing down to the Moon in a couple of days’ time, the seismometer would record no fewer than 55 minutes’ worth of bell-like oscillations. The strangeness of these reverberations was totally unlike terrestrial quakes and might have been caused by a layer of fractured rock sandwiched between bedrock in the floor of the Ocean of Storms and a more solid cover of finer materials above it. Scientists speculated that in the absence of dampening fluids or gases, this rubble may have acted as a gigantic echo chamber. As later missions deployed a network of seismometers, the true nature of the Moon’s interior became evident.

Al Bean carries the panniers of the first Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) across the dusty terrain for installation. Photo Credit: NASA

Al Bean carries the panniers of the first Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) across the dusty terrain for installation. Photo Credit: NASA

Al Bean’s hammer, earlier used in a futile attempt to get the television camera to work, was also employed by Conrad to hammer out the ALSEP’s plutonium fuel rod, which had gotten stuck in its protective casket. “Never come to the Moon without a hammer!” was one of the astronauts’ key pieces of advice. The two lunar-atmosphere experiments were placed into standby mode to enable internal gases to bake themselves out in two weeks of fierce lunar sunlight. In total, the men spent more than an hour setting up the ALSEP—undoing bolts, setting out the strangely shaped experiments, flattening the soil to ensure a level surface, attaching its bright-orange ribbon cables that carried power, command, and data—and then moved on.

Back inside Intrepid after a walk which, measured from cabin depressurization to repressurization, had lasted three hours and 56 minutes, the astronauts set to work stowing samples and recharging their backpacks with fresh reserves of oxygen and water for tomorrow’s excursion. Their worries about how lunar dust might damage the lander’s delicate systems and their own breathing meant that they kept their suits on throughout the “night.” In reality, it was not “night”: it was early in the lunar morning, and “morning” lasts a full week on the Moon; consequently, Conrad and Bean’s first excursion started at 6:30 a.m. local time, and by the time their second outing began, 13 hours later, only half an hour of lunar time had elapsed.

Sleeping in their suits, Conrad found, was about as snug as sleeping in football pads, and he caught himself glancing several times out of Intrepid’s triangular windows. The sky was blacker than anything he had ever seen, punctuated only by the blue and white marble of Earth, hanging there like a Christmas decoration. “The stars weren’t brilliant,” his second wife Nancy related in Rocketman, her biography of Conrad. “He could hardly make them out at all in the harsh white light bouncing off the [surface]. It was all so cold … and as silent as silent got.”

The lower legs of his space suit blackened by lunar dust, Pete Conrad uses the tongs of an Apollo Lunar Hand Tool to gather a rock sample at the Ocean of Storms. Photo Credit: NASA

The lower legs of his space suit blackened by lunar dust, Pete Conrad uses the tongs of an Apollo Lunar Hand Tool to gather a rock sample at the Ocean of Storms. Photo Credit: NASA

Despite having a pair of light, beta-cloth hammocks, they were both particularly uncomfortable: some cooling water had gotten into one of Conrad’s boots and the right leg of his suit had been misadjusted before launch and was effectively too short. It was now pulling on his shoulder, wrote Andrew Chaikin in his landmark book A Man on the Moon, “like a vice.” Conrad woke Bean at one stage and the two men set about undoing cords around the leg of the suit and retying them. Bean had tried taking a sleeping pill, but had slept little. Neither man got much sleep in the cold, cramped cabin and they ended up radioing Houston and starting preparations for their second Moonwalk a good two hours earlier than planned.

Conrad and Bean gulped down a quick breakfast, completed their suiting-up and were back outside by 11 p.m. EST on 19 November. After checking that the ALSEP was healthy, they set about their early exploration, trudging to Head Crater, then Bench Crater, then the relatively fresh Sharp Crater, whose bright rim and ejecta implied that it was only a few million years old, and later Halo Crater. The men collected, documented, and photographed rock and soil specimens, dug trenches, took core-tube samples, and remarked on the strange color of the surface: grey in some areas, brown in others, depending on the angle of the Sun. The lightness of the soil in places drew an excited response from the geologists, particularly when, on rounding Head Crater’s western rim, Bean noticed that Conrad’s footprints had uncovered lighter textures beneath the darker upper coating. It had been theorised that such light soil could represent “ray” material ejected by the impact which created the vast Copernicus crater, more than 180 miles (300 km) to the north. In fact, analysis of Conrad and Bean’s samples helped to peg the age of the Copernicus impact to about 800 million years. In fact, potassium-argon dating would reveal the Apollo 12 basalts to be around half a billion years younger than those from the Apollo 11 site, indicating the Moon was volcanically active for a substantial fraction of its early history.

Two hours after leaving Intrepid, they moved over to the southern rim of Surveyor Crater and could clearly see the three-legged, spindly craft sitting on a 12-degree slope, some 150 feet (45 meters) inside the pit. The pristine white surfaces that it had displayed on the day of its launch were gone—its light-tan discolouration was probably caused by more than two years of exposure to the harsh sunlight and more than a little lunar dust. Descending slowly into the crater (they had been provided with a rope for safety), the men set to work on their tasks. Bean photographed the probe whilst Conrad removed samples for return to Earth: first, a piece of insulated cable, then its television camera, a few other fragments, and finally its mechanical scoop.

With the lunar module Intrepid visible at left, this perspective of Surveyor Crater highlights how close Apollo 12 landed to the Surveyor 3 probe. Photo Credit: NASA

With the lunar module Intrepid visible at left, this perspective of Surveyor Crater highlights how close Apollo 12 landed to the Surveyor 3 probe. Photo Credit: NASA

As their second EVA drew to a close, the time seemed ripe for a touch of banter. Conrad had been unable to smuggle a giant baseball cap aboard Apollo 12, but they had managed to sneak a little chrome Hasselblad timer into one of their space suit pockets to get a shot of themselves standing in front of Surveyor 3. They dropped it into the tool carrier at the start of the Moonwalk … but as that steadily filled with rocks and soil, they couldn’t find it! Bean rummaged around for a while, but all he could see was dust on everything. The glint of chrome was nowhere to be seen. In the end, they gave up.

An hour or so later, back at Intrepid, Conrad emptied the tool carrier into a rock box and out popped the timer! “I’ve got something for you,” he called to Bean. Exasperated, Bean grabbed the timer and threw it as far as he could into the distance. It is a pity that the two-man photograph was unable to be taken, because when they re-entered their lander each man had at least 40 percent of his oxygen remaining. Before launch, Conrad agreed with mission planners that if he and Bean were granted one extension to their Moonwalk, he would not ask for another.

In total, they spent eight hours outside during their two excursions and neither man was exhausted, having expended less energy than anticipated. They felt some pain in their forearms: the fingers of their gloves were fully pressurized and this had made them stiff and difficult to move. During the second period on the surface, Conrad and Bean had spent much time carrying tools and other equipment, and this required them to keep their hands clenched almost constantly. After their return to Earth, both men would remark that this stiffness had impaired their efficiency on the Moon.

Still, there was plenty of pride when Intrepid’s ascent stage lifted off at 9:25 a.m. EST on 20 November. The astronauts had spent 31 hours on the Moon and the climb back to Yankee Clipper was picture-perfect; so perfect, in fact, that on the far side of the Moon during the early stages of the rendezvous, Conrad handed control to Bean for a few minutes. It was normally the commander’s prerogative to fly the vehicle, and most presumed this prerogative without a second thought, but yielding control was also a moment of pure Pete Conrad. “Al would never forget,” wrote Nancy Conrad, “the simplest, most natural gesture Pete offered, the only time it happened in the Apollo programme … the commander let the rookie fly.”

For more than four decades, this view of the Home Planet from behind the limb of the Moon has remained unseen by human eyes. Now, perhaps more than ever, the question remains: When will we go back? Photo Credit: NASA

For more than four decades, this view of the Home Planet from behind the limb of the Moon has remained unseen by human eyes. Now, perhaps more than ever, the question remains: When will we go back? Photo Credit: NASA

The reunion with Dick Gordon was both joyful and more than a little embarrassing. As soon as the hatches were opened between Intrepid and Yankee Clipper, Gordon grinned, took one look at his two filthy crewmates—literally blackened from exposure to lunar dust—and refused to let them come aboard.

“You’re not coming in my ship like that, Pete. Strip down.”

“Say what?”

“You heard me. Get out of those suits and you can come in.”

Despite his naval background, Gordon was not being finicky. No one knew what effect the abrasive lunar dust might have on the systems of the ship which would keep them alive for the three-day return to Earth; it might clog filters and hamper airflow in the command module. Gordon was not about to take the risk. As a result, Pete Conrad and Al Bean crossed from ship to ship in their birthday suits. Years later, Conrad would chuckle at the picture: if something bad had happened at that precise moment, and a thousand years later someone found them, what would they think?

“That I’m a sick and lonely man,” Gordon deadpanned, “and I went to a lot of trouble and expense for some privacy!”

The ascent stage of Intrepid was sent to crash into the Moon to stimulate the ALSEP seismometer. Yankee Clipper spent another day in lunar orbit, its crew shooting photographs of the Fra Mauro foothills, targeted for Apollo 13 in March 1970, and possible future landing sites near Descartes and Lalande craters. They also talked about the prospects for geologists on an alien world. It would be difficult, they admitted, to carry out efficient fieldwork on the Moon. Certainly, Al Bean felt that “on the spot” geology was hard and that astronauts would benefit from selecting and documenting as many different kinds of lunar specimens as possible. With the return of Apollo 12 to Earth on 24 November 1969, the attitude of the general public toward Moon landings began to wane … and it is a tragically damning indictment of the fickleness of our society that it took the trauma of Apollo 13 to briefly reignite popular enthusiasm.

 

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5 comments to 45 Years Since Apollo 12: The Surveyor and the Lonely Man (Part 4)

  • A simply wonderful account of the Apollo 12 mission and one that must be part of the archives for future generations. Among the many challenges facing manned exploration of the Moon and Mars is the problem of dust. How to overcome that will be a monumental task. Thanks, Ben!

  • What an awesome story! Thank you for a personal look at a fascinating human adventure.

  • Ben Evans

    Thanks Scott.

  • Karol

    Tom and Scott are absolutely right – this was an exemplary series Ben, thank you for the outstanding interesting and informative work. The lunar dust may be at once a problem, and a valuable resource. Unlike Earth dust and soil which has been weathered or “smoothed and softened” by the geologic processes of wind and rain erosion, the lunar regolith and fine dust is more similar to abrasive grinding or polishing powder as it is the product of fracturing and splintering by eons of micro-meteorite impacts producing sharp edges and rough, unpolished surfaces. Such abrasive powder or dust would obviously wreak havoc on lenses, valves, etc., but NASA is researching heating the regolith using microwave radiation to produce building materials in conjunction with the ATHLETE Robot program. However, according to the AIAA Daily Launch (20 Nov) the Congressional Budget Office has just issued a report that the United States could save 73 billion dollars between 2015 and 2023 if we just . . . eliminated the American manned space program.
    Damn, I am so sick and tired of being so sick and tired . . .