A Perfect Landing

Overshadowed between two dramatic missions, the success of Apollo 12 was vital to the continuing space project.

Pete Conrad was confused. One minute he was commenting cheerfully on a “lovely lift-off” and now the master alarm was blaring through his headset. He was the only one on board who had seen the flash outside but, as the three crew members scrambled to work out what was wrong, he still did not know what it was.

Conrad was born to fly. Only Dick Gordon, now sat to his right, could claim to be as talented. An ace in the simulator, Conrad weathered everything thrown at him with wry humour and a casual confidence that belied just how serious he was about his mission. But none of the simulations had been like this. Still, there was only a hint of concern in his voice as he watched the instrument panel light up and relayed to his Houston colleagues: “We had everything in the world drop out.”

He wondered aloud whether the flash outside had been lightning, and he was right. As Apollo 12 shuddered vertically from the ground, it had been struck twice. The ionised gas expelled by its Saturn V rocket as it was propelled upwards trailed down all the way to the launch pad. Heavy rains and possible storms earlier in the day had jeopardised the mission and, with the world’s longest lightning rod hanging off them, it took only 36 seconds for Apollo 12 to attract a bolt of lightning. The electricity surged through the rocket and the tower below, sending the command module’s computer into chaos. Conrad missed the second strike that, 52 seconds in, wiped out navigation.

Image source: NASA

Amid the rumbling panic in Mission Control, the flight controller John W. Aaron watched the numbers stream across his telemetry screen and recalled a simulation that had taken place a year earlier which had yielded a similarly baffling string of numbers. As lights flashed around him and controllers rushed to get a handle on the problem, he calmly said: “Flight, try S-C-E to Aux.”

It was an obscure control, and his colleagues did not understand the directive, but it was relayed to the astronauts nonetheless. Of the three, only the pilot, Alan L. Bean, remembered where the switch was and when he flicked S-C-E [Signal Conditioning Alert] to its auxiliary function — allowing the control to run at low voltage — the telemetry suddenly normalised.

As the situation calmed, Conrad chuckled through the radio. “That’ll give them something to write about tonight.”

Space Race

The year 1968 was hard on America. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, the Glenville shootout, the Tet Offensive and the beginning of wholesale defeat in Vietnam, together with unrest at home, all contributed to what the journalist Matthew Twombly described as “the year that shattered America”. The US might have overtaken the Soviet Union in the space race thanks to Apollo 8’s orbit of the moon that year but, as the decade came to a close, the deadline set by John F. Kennedy for putting a man on the lunar surface grew ever closer.

Apollo 8’s “Earthrise” — Image source: NPR

Originally meant for testing the Lunar Module in low-earth orbit, Apollo 8’s change of mission had been a major risk given that it had to be completed in such a tight time-frame. But with the Soviets racing towards their own lunar orbit, as Apollo 8’s command pilot Jim Lovell said: “It was a time for bold moves.” Now it was time for the boldest of all. If America was going to the Moon, it had to be in 1969.

Many at NASA were surprised when Pete Conrad was not selected for the first lunar landing. Conrad, too, was disappointed as he listened to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking their first steps onto the Moon from Mission Control. But he also noted how long it took everyone — including Michael Collins in the Command Module — to actually find Apollo 11’s Lunar Module after it landed four miles off-target.

Apollo 11 was an undeniably significant moment in human history, but its follow-up months later probably had more significance for the Apollo programme as a whole. In putting men on the moon before 1970 they had satisfied Kennedy’s mandate, but simply firing men at the Moon was not enough. All the plans and tests for Apollo 11 had been disrupted when the Lunar Module flew wide. Now NASA had to prove they could put men exactly where they wanted on the moon. Only then could they adequately plan scientific ventures and even consider exploring some of the rockier and less familiar areas of the Moon.

Between the mesmeric Apollo 11 and the disastrous Apollo 13, Apollo 12 is largely inconspicuous in the collective public consciousness. Compared with its historic siblings, Apollo 12 feels almost routine — as routine as sending men into space can be. But much hinged on the second Moon mission: success would pave the way for Apollos 13–17; failure could have spelled disaster for the entire space programme.

NASA was no stranger to calamity. Neil Armstrong and David Scott were almost killed in 1966 when Gemini 8 spun out of control in orbit; Apollo 10, in May 1969, had almost been sent crashing into the lunar surface by a string of duplicate computer commands; and Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee had all been lost in 1967 when Apollo 1 burst into flames on the landing pad. Which is to say nothing of the astronauts lost in jet crashes and other accidents. All had a profound effect on the Moon programme.

Yet, in the face of near-catastrophe, Conrad, Gordon and Bean acted as if they were in the most astronomical buddy movie ever made. Unlike the terse Apollo 11 or the portentous Bible verse from Genesis of Apollo 8 — “And God called the firmament Heaven”— the astronauts of Apollo 12 bubbled with nervous energy. They joked, laughed and listened to pop music all the way to the Moon. “People have to get some entertainment on these flights”, Conrad believed. “You can’t just look out the window.”

From left to right: Conrad, Gordon, and Bean. Image source: Space.com

Day Trippers

The crew that manned Apollo 12 may have been the most competent ever sent into space, but it was also determined to be the most fun. Conrad and Gordon had been best friends for years, renowned around NASA for their practical jokes, and Bean, with his attention to detail, complemented the duo perfectly.

“You got anything else to do tomorrow?” Conrad asked as they approached their touchdown. “We’ll go for a little Moon landing, how’s that?”

But this jovial atmosphere belied the professionalism and the heavy sense of duty that hung over the three men. When Sam Phillips had declared in the Apollo 11 control room, “Next time, I want a pinpoint landing”, Conrad had taken it to heart. For all his disappointment at not being on Apollo 11, Conrad was glad to be here. He knew how important the mission was to the future of the programme, and all three knew that success this time was about more than getting down and back in one piece.

Decades of piloting had sharpened their nerves, but the anxiety still grew as they neared the Moon. “I’m about as jumpy as I can be this morning”, Al Bean remarked on the day of their mission.

Sea views

Lunar maria are the dark plains that scar the otherwise light surface of the Moon. While the far side of the Moon is relatively unscathed, almost a third of the near side consists of these vast basaltic plains. Despite the name mare, these features have never seen water. Rather, they are believed to be the result of a cataclysmic cosmic impact that sheered much of the moon’s crust away. As the largest topographical feature on the Moon — easily visible with the naked eye — they also present the ideal landing stages for visiting spacecraft.

Image source: EarthSky

Apollo 11’s landing point, Mare Tranquillitatis — the Sea of Tranquility — is probably the most recognisable of these maria. But the search for Apollo 12’s landing site was focused around the Moon’s equator where the younger rock and dust promised a different composition from Apollo 11’s touchdown. Oceanus Procellarum — the Ocean of Storms — is, at almost 1,800 miles wide, the largest of the Moon’s maria. In 1967, NASA had fired Surveyor 3, one of its unmanned probes, into this vast basin and now it provided an excellent point of reference for any landing in its vicinity.

It was towards this Surveyor 3 crater that Apollo 12’s Lunar Module Intrepid now plummeted, having detached from the command module Yankee Clipper. Conrad attempted to bring the craft down through a dust cloud so thick that, for all the mechanical preparation, he found himself relying on pilot’s intuition to get them down safely.

Unable to see through the haze he levelled off early, arresting much of the downward speed from the craft.

As the Lunar Module crawled down, Conrad shifted from his window to the instrument panel he had helped design. This was the only real flying Conrad would do on Apollo 12 and every mission that followed aspired to achieve his near-perfect landing.

Image source: Getty images.

So bad was the haze outside his window that he was relying on the instrumentation to tell him whether he was on target. But he could not tell whether the information — particularly the lateral motion display — was correct. Instead, he navigated by instinct — aided by hours of simulation time. The moment he saw the blue flash of the contact lights, he shut off the engine; the module gently dropped the remaining few feet. He was reassured of his success when Bean cried from across the module, “Good landing, Pete! Outstanding.”

Later, as morning dawned in Houston on 19 November 1969, Conrad finally walked on the Moon. With an impatient hop from the module’s ladder, he declared, with reference to his esteemed predecessor: “That may have been a small one for Neil, but it’s a long one for me.”

Back on earth, the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci gathered $500 for Conrad on his return. Convinced that Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” speech had been contrived by NASA and not prepared by the astronaut himself, Fallaci had bet Conrad he could not get away with relaying his own original statement, a bet she had now lost.

Mission accomplished

Below the landing pad, just 600 feet away, Conrad saw Surveyor 3. Congratulations and applause were radioed up from Houston. The mission was a success.

Unlike Michael Collins, Dick Gordon envied Bean and Conrad their lunar time. Alone in the Yankee Clipper, Gordon watched as over the next three and a half hours Conrad and Bean conducted a range of experiments and tasks on the Moon’s surface, vicariously sharing the experience as he listened to their chatter. The redeeming moment of his lunar orbit came when, witnessing the two tiny specks of light below, he was the first to see how close Intrepid and Surveyor 3 were to each other; how much of a success the mission had been.

As Bean and Conrad ran through their tests, collecting samples and deploying NASA’s ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package), which would monitor, among other things, seismic activity and the composition of solar wind long after the astronauts had left, Gordon prepared for the 14-second burn that would nudge Yankee Clipper into position for the Lunar Module’s return.

He had to tell Bean and Conrad to shut up for a few minutes while he checked his work with Mission Control. Alone in the command module, little more than a speck of light to the two surface-bound astronauts, everything took longer for Gordon. He was tired and hungry and nervous.

Pete Conrad was proud: Apollo 12 was a success. But there was an undeniable sense of anticlimax as he stepped off the Lunar Module. Years of working on Apollo had almost numbed him to the wonder. When recalling this trip, it would be Dick Gordon beaming as he welcomed them back to Yankee Clipper that he would remember; the look of sheer appreciation as Conrad briefly handed control of Intrepid over to Al Bean; the jokes, the fun, the music.

After Apollo 12, public interest in flying to the moon seemed to diminish. The fervour stoked by John F. Kennedy faded — only to be briefly reignited as Apollo 13 limped home — but otherwise many saw little point in going back to the moon. For NASA, the scientific value of return trips was evident, but without the general interest and the funding that accompanied it, the programme was cancelled after Apollo 17 in December 1972.

It is easy to think of these missions, and their astronauts, as conceived within a vacuum — their names etched in history on a crew roster. But the men and women of the Apollo programme spent years developing it, forming the strong bonds that brought crews together and battling until they could put a man on the moon. Then they did it again and again, until it became a precise art form.

Image source: NASA

Saving grace

That is the legacy of Apollo 12. Its success in effecting a pinpoint landing influenced every lunar mission thereafter. Had the lightning strikes that frenzied the command module computer forced an abort — and likely the death of its astronauts — the entire Apollo programme would have been derailed. The deaths of Grissom, Chaffee and White in Apollo 1 had raised major questions over the worth of the entire project; had NASA also lost Apollo 12, it is unlikely that the Apollo project would have been allowed to continue.

There was a hint of luck to the mission being saved: after all, had John Aaron not seen similarly inappropriate data a year before, he might not have known to switch the signal conditioning equipment to its auxiliary function; by the same token, he might have been at a different station; or Al Bean, originally not even scheduled for Conrad’s team, might not have known where S-C-E was, losing valuable seconds in finding it. That being said, for NASA, luck had nothing to do with it.

Referred to as one of NASA’s “finest hours”, the success of Apollo 12 was down to one thing, as noted in the report What Made Apollo a Success, published in 1972 after the conclusion of the programme: “The quick response to the Apollo 12 outage came about not as a result of blind luck but of careful planning, training, and development of people, procedures, and data display techniques by those responsible for flight control.”

In short, people saved Apollo 12. People put men on the Moon. People like John Aaron, the technicians and mathematicians and engineers who devoted years to developing Apollo, the astronauts who risked all to leave the Moon marked indelibly with human footprints — often under the relative anonymity of public apathy — and, in particular, Dick Gordon, Al Bean and Pete Conrad, without whom Apollo might never have survived.

Cover image source: NASA

This piece was originally featured in History Today Volume 69 Issue 12 December 2019.

Designer, writer, and historian. Founder of Geoffrey Bunting Graphic Design (geoffreybunting.co.uk).

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