Friday, November 22, 2019

Philadelphia-born Astronaut Pete Conrad was a ‘Hoot,’ and a Great Pilot

 On August 29, 1965, Astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr. is hoisted up to a Navy helicopter while astronaut L. Gordon Cooper Jr. waits in a life raft below after the splashdown of the Gemini-5 spacecraft. (NASA Photograph S65-51659)

By Steve Milner
Contributing Writer

I didn’t know astronaut Pete Conrad very well when I worked at Cape Canaveral and Kennedy space Center. I’d see him training for his various space missions, or relaxing somewhere in the Florida Spaceport area. Regardless of the location, he was always approachable and friendly during those times.  

I was contracted to the NASA Public Affairs Office for about eight years. And among my editorial duties was writing most of the Apollo mission photo captions in real-timefrom training through splashdown and saw different aspects of Conrad and his Apollo 12 crew, Dick Gordon and Alan Bean. But Conrad and I did have some things in common: We were both from Philadelphia–he was from the up-scale Main Line and I grew up “across the tracks” in less-affluent South Philadelphia; we were both five-foot-six inches tall, bald; and looked a little alike from a distance. But that’s where the similarities ended—he flew jet planes and spacecraft, and I get dizzy on a Ferris wheel.

Astronaut Alan L. Bean, lunar module pilot, is assisted with egressing the Apollo 12 Command Module by a U.S. Navy underwater demolition team swimmer during recovery operations in the Pacific Ocean on November 24, 1969. Already in the life raft are astronauts Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr., commander; and Richard F. Gordon Jr., command module pilot. The three crewmen of the second lunar landing mission were picked up by recovery helicopter and flown to the prime recovery ship, USS Hornet (CVS 12). The Apollo 12 splashdown occurred at 2:58 p.m. (CST), November 24, 1969, near American Samoa. While astronauts Conrad and Bean descended in the Lunar Module (LM) "Intrepid" to explore the Ocean of Storms region of the moon, astronaut Gordon remained with the Command and Service Modules (CSM) "Yankee Clipper" in lunar orbit. (NASA Photograph S69-22265 via Naval History and Heritage Command Photo Curator Flickr)
The recovery ship USS Hornet (CVS 12) hoists the Apollo Twelve Command Module aboard. The spacecraft splashed down less than three miles from the anti-submarine support carrier in the Pacific Ocean, southeast of the island of Samoa, on November 24, 1969. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
Drawing, Pencil on Paper; by Paul D. Ortlip of the Apollo 12 Command Module being hoisted aboard the anti-submarine support carrier Hornet after its successful return from the moon on November 24, 1969. (Navy Art Collection)
Rear Admiral Donald C. David, Commander, Manned Spacecraft Recovery Force, Pacific, welcomes the crew of  Apollo 12 aboard USS Hornet (CVS 12) on November 24, 1969.  Inside the Mobile Quarantine Facility are (left to right) astronauts Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr., mission commander; Richard F. Gordon, Jr., command module pilot; and Alan L. Bean, lunar module pilot. Note the "Three More, Like Before" sign where "Hornet +3" was posted after the Apollo 11 mission. After Apollo 14, the requirement for returning astronauts to be quarantined was lifted. (NASA Photo S69-22876 via Naval History and Heritage Command Photo Curator/ Flickr)
Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, Chief of Naval Operations, (left), accepts his personal flag from the three Apollo 12 astronauts who carried it with them during the moon mission.  Admiral Moorer also presented them with the Distinguished Service Medal.  Left to right: Captain Charles "Pete" Conrad, Captain Richard Gordon and Captain Alan Bean.  (U.S. Navy photograph 428-GX-USN 1042856, now in the collections of the National Archives via Naval History and Heritage Command Photo Curator Flickr)
Conrad was a well-known jokester when he wanted to be, but certainly was a highly skilled, cool-headed pilot, whether he was flying a fighter jet on earth or a spacecraft a quarter-of-a-million miles away in space. When I saw a huge lightning bolt strike his Apollo 12 Saturn V rocket while it was lifting off from Kennedy Space Center’s Complex 39A, on November 14, 1969, and heard his calm radio transmissions when he reported on-board situational reports to Mission Control, I knew he was the perfect guy to handle that unforeseen and potentially dangerous situation. Fortunately, Apollo 12 was a successful lunar mission.
Steve Milner and Charles "Pete" Conrad after Conrad spoke at the Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton, Virginia, about 1994. (Photo by Pete Westerman/ Courtesy of Steve Milner)
Fast forward about 25 years from that dreary launch day. After I had relocated in our local Virginia area, I saw Conrad for the next and last time. He had given a talk at the Hampton Air & Space Center, where his Apollo 12 spacecraft is still exhibited. After this event he and I reminisced briefly about Cape days. At that time, he kindly signed a photo I had brought with me of his Skylab Workshop being transported to the Spaceport’s Complex 39A in 1973. He died at 69, following a motorcycle accident in California in 1999.
Apollo 12 Command Module Pilot Richard Gordon talks with blog post author Steve Milner's wife Enid during a Manned Flight Awareness event on January 30, 1971, the evening before Apollo 14 was launched to the moon with astronauts Alan Shepard, Stuart Roosa, and Edgar Mitchell.  The event was held to honor personnel for their contributions to the space program. (Courtesy of Steve Milner)
Years earlier I, and other honorees, socialized with his Gemini 11 and Apollo 12 crewmate, Dick Gordon, when he greeted us at NASA’s Manned Flight Awareness reception on January 30, 1971. It was held in Cocoa Beach, Florida, the night before the launch of Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard, Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell to the moon. I was pleased to be my company’s Spaceport honoree, based on my work performance. Gordon was friendly to honorees and their families and spent time individually with everyone, thanking us for our contributions to the nation’s space program. Other astronauts and celebrities attended this event. Honorees and their guests watched the launch of Apollo 14 the next day from the Spaceport’s VIP site, along with then President Richard Nixon. While my wife attended the VIP site, I had to work on launch day, documenting and writing related NASA photo captions. This task began with photos of the astronauts’ breakfast activities, their suiting up for their flight, their transfer to the launch pad, their entering their spacecraft and, finally, to their launch on a Saturn V rocket at the start of their mission to the moon.
(Courtesy of Steve Milner)
Even though these events took place 50 years ago, I still recall them vividly. And I’ve always been grateful to have had a front-row seat, and be part of an aspect of America’s important history as it unfolded.

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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