Even with as poorly as most Americans do with basic historical knowledge, almost everyone can name the first team of astronauts to walk on the Moon: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who went there on the historic mission of Apollo 11. But can you name anyone from the second team to reach the lunar surface? If you’re a space buff, maybe, but it’s not like the names Pete Conrad and Alan Bean are ranked up there with the giants of space exploration history. The second mission to the moon, Apollo 12, doesn’t get enough respect, but what they accomplished was as equally amazing as what Neil and Buzz did, even though they didn’t do it first.
Apollo 12, the sophomore effort to reach the Moon, blasted off from Florida 44 years ago today, on November 14, 1969. The three astronauts were all Navy commanders: Charles “Pete” Conrad, Alan Bean and Richard Gordon. Strangely, the mission was almost aborted before it began. The launch occurred during a thunderstorm and right after the rocket left the pad it was struck by lightning. The sudden surge of electricity played havoc with the controls, but quick thinking by pilot Alan Bean and ground-based mission controllers in switching over to a backup system saved the mission. The lightning strike did leave one big question, though: could the parachutes, designed to slow the impact of the spacecraft during its water landing at the end of the mission, have been damaged? NASA didn’t know, and there was no way to find out ahead of time, so the astronauts weren’t told that the mission might possibly end in their deaths. (Presumably they were smart and well-trained enough to figure this out for themselves).
The rest of the mission went more smoothly. Although spectacular and adventurous, the Apollo 11 landing four months previous was rather ad hoc, because the intended landing site turned out to be cluttered with dangerous boulders and Neil Armstrong had to fly on to a more suitable target. This time Conrad and Bean landed their lunar module, called Intrepid, exactly where NASA had planned for it to land. The landing site was within walking distance of Surveyor 3, an unmanned lunar probe that had touched down successfully in 1967. When he got out of the lunar lander and set foot on the surface, Conrad said, mocking Neil Armstrong, “That may have been a small [step] for Neil, but that was a big one for me.” He had bet an Italian reporter $500 that he would say these words. Although he followed through, the reporter never paid up.
One of the mission objectives of Apollo 12 was to collect samples from objects that had been on the moon for a while, such as the Surveyor 3 probe which arrived two and a half years before the astronauts did.
The biggest glitches of the mission, besides the lightning strike, involved Alan Beam’s clumsiness. Minutes after the first moonwalk started Bean ruined the color TV camera intended to record the event by inadvertently aiming it right at the sun, burning out a crucial element. Later Bean left several rolls of photographs behind on the lunar surface. Obviously they are still there and preserved in the airless environment; if someday human beings return to the moon, they may be able to retrieve them and show the world never-before-seen pictures of the moon from way back in 1969.
The astronauts stayed on the moon for 31 hours before linking back up with their command ship, piloted by Richard Gordon. The trip back to Earth was uneventful, but the splashdown was not. Fortunately the parachutes operated normally, but the curse of Alan Bean’s clumsiness struck again. During the landing a camera fell out of a rack and hit him in the head, knocking him unconscious and requiring stitches. Nevertheless, the astronauts made it back to Earth largely unharmed, landing on November 24, 1969.
The astronauts of Apollo 12 were the last humans to walk on the moon for another 15 months. The next flight, Apollo 13, famously failed to reach the lunar surface due to an accident en route. The next successful landing was not until February 1971.
Alan Bean is, so far as I know, the only artist ever go to to the moon. Here he is in his painting studio.
But still, you’ve got to hand it to these guys; they didn’t go for the glory, but they got their job done admirably and completed one of the most epic journeys ever made by human beings. Mission commander Pete Conrad died tragically in a motorcycle accident in July 1999. Dick Gordon and Alan Bean are still alive. Bean is today an artist, and sometimes sprinkles a little moon dust into his paintings. He and his fellow Apollo astronauts who are still living remain in a dwindling, select few of the only human beings ever to set foot on another world–but hopefully they’ll be joined by others before too many years have passed.