Thursday, November 14, 2019

Fifty Years Ago: Apollo 11 was a Tough Act to Follow, but Apollo 12 Made a Pinpoint Lunar Landing

Astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad begins descending the ladder from the Apollo XII lunar module "Intrepid" in this photograph taken by lunar module pilot Alan Bean on November 19, 1969.  (Apollo film magazine 46Y/ Project Apollo Archive)
By Steve Milner
Contributing Writer

“Whoopie! Man, that might have been one small step for Neil (Armstrong), but it was a long one for me.”

So said astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr. as he slowly descended the ladder of the Apollo 12 lunar module, call sign Intrepid, on November 19, 1969, becoming the third person to walk on the moon’s surface 50 years ago.
In this official portrait of the prime crew of the Apollo 12 lunar landing mission taken in September 1969 we see (from left) Mission Commander Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr., Command Module pilot, Richard F. Gordon Jr. and Lunar Module pilot Alan L. Bean. The Apollo 12 mission was the second lunar landing mission in which the third and fourth American astronauts, both naval officers, set foot upon the Moon. (NASA on the Commons image S69-38852)
As planned, Apollo astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean landed their lunar module (background) about 600 feet from the Surveyor 3 spacecraft, launched to the moon two years earlier. On their second extravehicular activity (EVA-2) conducted on November 20, 1969, they removed some components for study on earth. (Project Apollo Archive)
Unlike Apollo 11, which missed its primary landing site, Apollo 12 touched down precisely as planned in the “Ocean of Storms,” about 600 feet from the unmanned Surveyor 3 spacecraft that had landed on the lunar surface two-and-a-half years earlier. The astronauts brought back some of Surveyor’s parts to earth for specialists to examine how well they withstood this harsh environment. While Apollo 11 named its landing site, “Tranquility Base,” Apollo 12 astronauts didn’t designate a catchy name for theirs, other than to refer to it as the geological, cratered “Ocean of Storms.”
The official crew insignia for Apollo 12, the United States' second lunar landing mission. The clipper ship signifies that the crew is all Navy and symbolically relates the era of the clipper ship to the era of space flight. The portion of the moon shown is representative of the Ocean of Storms area in which Apollo 12 will land. (NASA illustration)
Lunar Module Pilot Alan Lavern Bean, nicknamed “Beano,” had followed Conrad to the surface, while Command Module Pilot, Richard Francis Gordon, Jr. orbited overhead in their mother ship, call sign “Yankee Clipper.” Here, he would orbit the moon alone 45 times while keeping “Yankee Clipper” on target to receive his crewmates after their lunar stay.
The huge 363-foot tall Apollo 12 space vehicle (Spacecraft 108/Lunar Module 6/ Saturn 507) lifts off from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center at 11:22 a.m. on November 14, 1969.  The lightening strike that hit the space vehicle moments after launch was not captured in this image. (NASA on the Commons/ Image S69-58564)
Apollo 12 started on a rough, potentially dangerous launch from Kennedy Space Center on November 14, 1969. I can still see that incredibly long lightning strike as I watched it hit their Saturn V rocket at T+36 seconds, as it rose slowly skyward during a rainstorm. I wondered then why NASA had launched Apollo 12 in marginal weather conditions. At that time, some felt that this launch proceeded that day because then-President Richard Nixon was watching its liftoff at the Spaceport’s VIP site, three-and-a-half miles from Launch Complex 39A, and NASA didn’t want to disappoint him. I hoped that wasn’t the case; that the Space Agency would have jeopardized the astronauts’ safety for political reasons.
Dr. Thomas Paine, NASA Administrator, shields the First Lady, Mrs. Pat Nixon, from rain while the President and daughter Tricia, foreground, watch Apollo 12 pre-launch activities at the Kennedy Space Center viewing area on November 14, 1969. Following the successful liftoff, the President congratulated the launch crew from within the control center. (NASA photo courtesy of Steve Milner)
This lightning strike, measuring the length of the 36-story space vehicle, also struck and damaged its launch pad. Conrad correctly deduced later that as the Saturn V lifted off, it had trailed a column of flame and ionized gases that stretched to the ground, becoming the world’s longest lightning rod.
After the successful launch of Apollo 12, President Richard Nixon congratulates NASA and contractor personnel within the spaceport's Launch Control Center. (NASA photo courtesy of Steve Milner)
When this anomaly occurred, numerous spacecraft panel lights flashed simultaneously, signaling that critical systems aboard the Apollo 12 command module weren’t functioning and were damaged. Neither the astronauts nor their ground controllers had seen as many warning lights activated at the same time in their training mission simulators.
Not only did Apollo 12 have an all-Navy flight crew, but the Navy's Atlantic Fleet Manned Space Recovery Force (CTF-140) was dedicated to their survival. From their headquarters in Washington DC, Chief Warrant Officer James D. Parker of Pequot, Minnesota, and Lieutenant Carl J. Newberg of Hinsdale, Illinois, monitor mission reports from ships and aircraft of the Atlantic Fleet. (National Archives and Records Administration via Naval History and Heritage Command)
Despite this unexpected and scary situation, the flight crew reacted calmly and quickly, troubleshooting these anomalies, which included mostly false readouts. Fortunately, the lightning strike didn’t activate the Spacecraft’s launch escape system, (LES). If this had happened, it would have jettisoned their spacecraft away from its launch vehicle, and the spacecraft would have been, hopefully, carried by parachute to the ground, scrubbing the lunar mission. But the space vehicle continued safely to earth orbit. A second lighting strike also hit the Saturn V while it was en route to earth orbit.
Seen from the command module "Yankee Clipper," the lunar module "Intrepid" orients itself high above the lunar surface before deorbiting on November 19, 1969. (Project Apollo Archive)
Following mating with its lunar module and Translunar Injection (TLI), the astronauts began their three-day, nearly 250,000-mile journey to the moon. After orbiting the moon and separating their lunar module from their command module, Conrad and Bean descended to the moon’s surface. During their more than 31 hours on the moon, they conducted two Extra Vehicular Activities (EVAs), each lasting three-and-a-half hours, visited several craters, gathered 75 pounds of lunar samples and walked farther and explored more lunar terrain than Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin had done.
The Passive Seismic Experiment (PSE) module deployed as a part of Apollo 12's Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP), which was deployed on five of the six successful missions. It consists of a seismometer surrounded by an apron of aluminized Mylar to reduce surface temperature fluctuations, recording moonquakes and meteorite impacts.  (Project Apollo Archive)
They also set up the nuclear-powered Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP), which quickly sent data back to earth. But among the Apollo 12 crew’s crowning achievements, in addition to the unique rocks they brought back, was their precise landing near the Surveyor 3 spacecraft.
The Anti-Submarine Warfare Support Aircraft Carrier USS Hornet (CVS 12) prepares to recover the Apollo Twelve Command Module following its splashdown southeast of the island of Samoa, November 24, 1969, after its landing. (National Archives and Records Administration via Naval History and Heritage Command)
On November 20, Conrad and Bean lifted off in the ascent stage of their lunar module and rendezvoused and docked with their command module that Gordon was piloting. Four days later, they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and were taken aboard the mission’s primary recovery ship, USS Hornet (CVS 12), the same vessel that had picked up the Apollo 11 crew. Like the Apollo 11 crew, Conrad, Gordon and Bean were isolated to ensure they didn’t bring back lunar germs.

Editor's Note: In addition to serving as public affairs officer for 17 years at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Steve Milner was also a public affairs contractor with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at Cape Canaveral during the manned Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs.

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