Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Space Sailors of Apollo 12, Before and After

Apollo 12 astronauts (from left) Pete Conrad, Richard Gordon and Alan Bean pause by a T-38 training aircraft at Patrick Air Force base the day before they were launched to the moon.  Each pilot spent nearly an hour aloft that day in individual aircraft, practicing aerobatics in preparation for their space flight. (NASA photo courtesy of Steve Milner)
By Steve Milner
Contributing Writer

Apollo 12 was an all-U.S. Navy crew. The astronauts had been test pilots at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.  Pete Conrad then flew in earth orbit aboard Gemini 11 with Richard Gordon, after being launched on September 12, 1966. Conrad and Gordon had roomed earlier aboard USS Ranger (CV 61) from which they flew flight operations. From the outset, the two had established a close personal friendship that continued through Apollo 12 and beyond. Conrad had wanted Gordon to land on the moon with him, but astronaut rules dictated that a command module pilot had to have flown in space previously and Bean was a space rookie.
Lieutenant Commander Richard F. Gordon Jr., prime crew pilot for Gemini-Titan XI (GT-11), and Commander Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr., prime crew command pilot, pose for their official mission photograph on November 4, 1965. (NASA photo S65-58504 via NHHC Photo Curator/Flickr)
Compared to his two crewmates who were considerably more outgoing and known throughout the astronaut corps for speaking their minds, Bean was an introvert. All three astronauts would establish a solid friendship that continued back on earth for many years.
The Apollo 12 lunar Extravehicular Activity (EVA) crew members, Charles "Pete" Conrad and Al Bean conduct a simulation of the lunar surface activity at a training session held in the Flight Crew Training Building at the Kennedy Space Center on October 6, 1969. (NASA photo 69PC-0549 via NASA on the Commons/Flickr)
In my limited dealings with Conrad I found him to be cordial, when I worked at Cape Canaveral and was involved in the photo aspects of Apollo 12 and when I saw him at Hampton’s Air & Space Center (today home to the Apollo 12 command module) about 25 years after his lunar mission.  At that time we reminisced about the “good old days” at Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach. During our Hampton conversation he autographed my photo of his unmanned Skylab Workshop being transported to the launch pad (sitting in place of the third stage of the earlier moon-bound Saturn Vs) in 1973.
A modified Saturn V carries the Skylab orbital workshop into orbit in May 1973.  Over the course of its human occupation from May 25, 1973, to February 8, 1974, three crews visited Skylab, carried out 270 scientific and technical investigations and logged a combined 171 days on orbit.
Conrad was launched on the Skylab I mission aboard a Saturn 1B rocket (known as Skylab 2) with another all-Navy crew consisting of Paul Weitz and Joseph Kerwin from KSC’s Launch Complex 39B on May 25, 1973. The trio spent 28 days in the Skylab Workshop, conducting many medical and other experiments. 
Each of the three crewed Skylab missions from May 1973 to 1974 were staffed by three astronauts. Since these were the longest missions ever conducted in low Earth orbit up to that time, one of the top science priorities was to collect medical data on the effects of long spaceflights on humans.  Astronaut Joseph P. Kerwin, science pilot for the first manned Skylab mission and a medical doctor, conducted a physical exam for Astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr., the Skylab I mission commander.  Kerwin conducted the exam in the crew quarters wardroom of the orbital workshop developed by the NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala, which also built equipment used for research. Conrad almost literally stands on his head in the weightlessness of space with only a restraint around his left leg holding in position. (NASA Marshall Space Flight Center/ Flickr)
Conrad was selected in the second group of astronauts and was widely regarded in the aerospace community and the astronaut corps as being quirky, comedic and an unpredictable person. But the overall consensus was that he was a top-flight pilot and aeronautical engineer. He had a confident manner that he sharpened during his test-pilot days, a trait that probably calmed his crewmates during difficult in-flight conditions.
Astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr., Skylab I commander, smiles happily for the camera after a hot shower in the crew quarters of the orbital workshop of the Skylab space station on June 1, 1973. (NASA Marshall Space Flight Center/ Flickr)
Despite Conrad’s well-known colorful side and sometimes questionable language, this Princeton graduate knew how “to behave” when the situation called for him to do so. Even though NASA officials weren’t sure what he would tell the world when he first set foot on the lunar surface, they still didn’t prepare momentous words for him to recite.  In fact, noted Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci bet Conrad $500 that NASA would write his comments. Conrad said his would be original ones and he won this bet, but was never paid the $500, he said. Fallaci was visiting the Conrad family when she made the bet. (I remember attending a NASA news conference in Cocoa Beach prior to a different space mission that Fallaci and her good friend, actress Shirley MacLaine, attended).

The mission patch of Skylab I, emphasizing the harshness of space, was spot-on considering that the station was originally too hot to sustain human life. After launching to the station aboard a Saturn IB on May 25, 1973,  Astronauts Charles C. "Pete" Conrad, Paul J. Weitz and Joseph Kerwin made critical repairs to damage sustained when the station was launched, saving the program.  The mission included three spacewalks and lasted 28 days–twice the previous record for an American manned space mission–when it ended on June 22. (NASA on the Commons/ Flickr

Following their successful Apollo 12 mission, Conrad moved on to the Skylab Workshop program and commanded the first manned mission to it. When he retired from NASA and the U.S. Navy with the rank of captain, he worked for several aerospace firms and founded one that was trying to develop reusable space hardware. He tragically died at the age of 69, following a motorcycle accident in Ojai, California, on July 8, 1999. While appearing to be okay following this accident, he died a few hours later due to massive internal bleeding. Conrad is buried at Arlington National Cemetery and is remembered for his four successful space missions: two during the Gemini Program, Apollo 12 and Skylab I, logging nearly 1,200 hours in space.

Gordon remained with NASA and was the backup commander for the Apollo 15 mission. At that time Gordon thought he would command a future Apollo mission, possibly Apollo 18, which was later canceled, along with Apollo 19 and 20, due to budgetary constraints. He stayed in the Astronaut Office and helped design crew aspects for the Space Shuttle.
Captain Richard F. Gordon, USN, photographed in his Apollo 12 space suit before his mission in November 1969.  (Johnson Space Flight Center)
Gordon, who was selected in the third group of astronauts, grew up in Seattle and attended the University of Washington, where he received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Flying in the Apollo 12 command module alone, he orbited the moon 45 times and kept it flight ready for his crewmates to return from the lunar surface. Gordon logged nearly 316 hours in space, including his time as a Gemini 11 astronaut. He retired from the Navy as a captain and later had a varied business career, including being executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints football team. Gordon was 88 when he died and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The crew of Skylab II (from right to left): astronaut Alan L. Bean, foreground, commander; scientist-astronaut Owen K. Garriott, left, science pilot; and astronaut Jack R. Lousma, pilot. This crew spent 59 days and 11 hours in orbit. (NASA on the Commons photo 72-HC-90/ Flickr)
Like Gordon, Bean thought he would command a future Apollo mission that eventually was canceled. Next, Bean trained for the second crewed flight to the orbiting workshop, Skylab (Skylab 2). He was launched to it on a Saturn 1B rocket with new astronauts Owen Garriott and Jack Lousma from Kennedy Space Center’s Complex 39B on July 28, 1973. Bean was chosen in the third astronaut group and had a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He logged more than 1,500 of space flight. He retired from the Navy as a captain and became an artist more than a decade after he had landed on the moon with Conrad. Most of Bean’s popular artwork depicted highlights of Apollo missions. He died on May 26. 2018, at the age of 86 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Astronaut Alan L. Bean, commander of the second Skylab crew, participates in the final extravehicular activity (EVA) of that mission, during which a variety of tasks were performed. Here, Bean is near the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) during final film change out for the giant telescope facility. Astronaut Owen K. Garriott, who took the picture, is reflected in Bean's helmet visor. The reflected Earth disk in Bean's visor is so clear that the Red Sea and Nile River area can delineated. (NASA image SL3-122-2612 via NASA on the Commons/ Flickr)
Apollo 11 might be better known as our nation’s first manned lunar-landing mission, but Apollo 12 pioneered a number of its own notable firsts.

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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