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Apollo 12

Dirk Ellingson

Submitted by Life Columnist Dirk Ellingson

First pioneers get most of the press.  We all know the names Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins (Neil, Buzz, and Michael) from Apollo 11, the July 1969 space mission that first landed men on the moon. Can you name the men of Apollo 12?

I was only 6 years old in the summer between 1st grade and 2nd but still remember the Apollo 11 moon landing. Playing astronaut outside with a neighbor boy and debating which of us would be Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. My friend was older so I think I was cast as Buzz. I recall nothing about Apollo 12 at age 7 just four months later in November 1969. I remember a popular jigsaw puzzle depicting the Apollo 11 heroes. If one was available at the toy store, I never saw its sequel.

The second crew of Apollo astronauts destined for the moon were commander Charles “Pete” Conrad (1930-1999), Alan Bean (1932-2018), and Richard Gordon (1929-2017).  The Apollo 12 logo featured a merchant sailing vessel orbiting the moon because all three astronauts were United States Navy officers.

Gordon like Collins before him remained in lunar orbit piloting the Command Module.  Only two of the three Apollo astronauts could walk on the moon surface. One had to circle high overhead to reclaim the moon pedestrians.

Conrad’s first space flight was Gemini 5 in 1965 with a different Gordon. Gordon Cooper was one of the original Mercury Seven Astronauts. Conrad and Richard Gordon first left Earth together aboard Gemini 11 in 1966. Armstrong was the backup command pilot for both of those Gemini missions.  

Clifton Williams was to originally accompany Conrad and Gordon on Apollo 12, but he was killed in a 1967 jet crash. Conrad requested Bean for the mission. Bean was his former student at the United States Naval Test Pilot School.

Apollo 12 left Earth on November 14, 1969. It took off from Cape Kennedy (which was Cape Canaveral renamed after the JFK assassination in 1963, then went back to being Cape Canaveral in 1973) on Merritt Island (which is really a peninsula) on the Atlantic Ocean side of Florida. Launch day was rainy at Cape Kennedy and the Saturn V rocket was struck by lightning. This rattled the telemetry readings and might have scrubbed the mission had Bean not followed Apollo flight controller John Aaron’s suggestion of “Flight, try SCE to Aux.” This confused most everyone at ground control. Bean actually remembered where the Signal Conditioning Electronics switch was inside the capsule and flipped it to Auxiliary. The subsequent mission was relatively safe and problem free.  Apollo 12 was on its way to the moon.

The Lunar Module Intrepid carrying Conrad and Bean touched down on the moon November 19, within a thousand miles of the Apollo 11 landing spot. They landed on Oceanus Procellarum (Latin for Ocean of Storms) to reunite with the little robotic spacecraft Surveyor 3 launched in 1967. The unmanned Surveyor 3 was sent to the moon with a soil sampling scoop and a TV camera the Apollo 12 astronauts retrieved for study. Commander Conrad nicknamed the site “Pete’s Parking Lot.”

After stepping out of the Intrepid, Conrad’s first words were, “Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.” Conrad and Bean conducted lunar experiments and collected samples. Geologists advised their rock gathering by voice communication from Houston. After a few hours, the astronauts took a break to eat, recharge the equipment, and sleep for five hours back aboard the Intrepid between their two days working on the moon surface.

Apollo 12 packed a color television camera, but Bean accidentally ruined the transmission after aiming it at the sun. Bean smuggled a self-timer to shoot a surprise photo of he and Conrad together. The device was misplaced and found after the photo opportunity passed. Several rolls of exposed film were also lost on the moon. Bean the great pilot was not a promising photographer. The moon walking astronauts did successfully snap and save some photos while Gordon orbiting above in the Command Module Yankee Clipper shot some fine aerial pictures of the moon surface.

After 31.6 hours on the moon, the Intrepid returned Conrad and Bean to the Yankee Clipper November 20. The astronauts spent another day in lunar orbit to take more pictures. Then the men headed home. They photographed a dramatic solar eclipse where the Earth eclipsed the sun rather than the kind we see here where the moon blocks the sun.

Apollo 12 concluded its 10-day flight with a Pacific Ocean splashdown November 24, 1969. Specifically, the adventure lasted 244 hours, 36 minutes, and 25 seconds, merely a minute and two seconds longer than engineers planned. That’s precision National Aeronautics and Space Administration style.

During splashdown, Bean experienced a final struggle with film gear when a 16mm camera broke loose of its moorings and smacked him in the head. He would later work in a less hazardous visual medium.

After leaving NASA, Richard Gordon was an Executive Vice President of the New Orleans Saints from 1972-76, a woeful period for Who Dat? Nation. He subsequently enjoyed business success in the energy and engineering fields. He died in 2017.

Pete Conrad went up in space again commanding Skylab 2 in 1973. He later worked in the communications and aviation industries. In 1999, he died after a motorcycle crash.  He was wearing his helmet.

Alan Bean’s final space flight was as commander of Skylab 3 in 1973. After his astronaut adventures, the fourth man to walk on the moon became a painter. His paints were very special because he mixed in a little moondust harvested from his keepsake Apollo 12 spacesuit patches. Bean’s artwork included tiny reminders of moon travel.

Apollo 12 is less remembered than its dramatic bookends Apollo 11 and Apollo 13, the 1970 mission aborted when an oxygen tank explosion nearly ended in outer space tragedy. But Apollo 12 was a very important moon trip worthy of commemoration 51 years after its celestial success.

Contrary to journalistic training to include the most important information to readers early on (editors might lop off endings in consideration of space limitations), I saved this vital tidbit for last. Although he was born and died in Texas, Alan Bean lived a few childhood years in Minden, Louisiana where his father worked for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. Astronaut Bean died in 2018, the last remaining crew member of Apollo 12.