643. Apollo 12

Everybody knows about Apollo 11, especially since its fiftieth anniversary last July. And then there’s Apollo 13 which was crewed by Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon, with Gary Sinise working hard in the simulator. Or so America remembers it.

Quiz: match the actual Apollo 13 astronauts with the actors who played them.

Answers: Jim Lovell (commander), Fred Haise (lunar module pilot), and Jack Sweigert (command module pilot). Ken Matingly was the astronaut who got bumped for a disease he didn’t have.

That’s it. The average American knows one flight, one movie, and may vaguely remember something about the Bible being read from the moon. It was lunar orbit, actually, on Apollo 8.

There were six moon landings; five of them are essentially forgotten. Apollo 12 was the second landing, and today it has reached its fiftieth anniversary with none of the mega-hype we saw in July. If Apollo 11 had aborted at some point, and Apollo 12 has succeeded exactly as it did, all the hype would be today, and no one would remember Neil Armstrong.

Query: who was the next person to fly the Atlantic solo non-stop after Lindbergh. Answer: I have no idea, either.

For the record, the crew of Apollo 12 consisted of Pete Conrad (commander), Alan Bean (lunar module pilot), and Dick Gordon (command module pilot).

The countdown for Apollo 12 started at midnight Nov. 9th, 98 hours before scheduled launch. Zero and liftoff, was reached after several holds, some planned, some not, at 16:22 GMT (22 minutes after noon, local time) fifty years ago today.

36 seconds into the fight, Apollo 12 was struck by lightning. 52 seconds into the flight, it was struck again.

Every light on the boards went on at once. No one had seen such a display of dismay on any flight or in any simulation. Conrad said, “I don’t know what happened here; we had everything in the world drop out.”

NASA had made the launch despite a thunderstorm, for reasons no one seems to be able to nail down. The surge of power from the two strikes caused most of the electrical system to shut down, rather like a home surge protector shutting down power to save a computer. The crew rode out the emergency until they reached a stable orbit, then got to work reestablishing their connection to the fuel cells.

As if that weren’t enough, the automated navigation system was no longer working. They had to use a sextant (a high tech one, of course) to establish their position by shooting a pair of stars.

Two hours and fifty three minutes after liftoff, the final stage of the Saturn V fired again and put them on a trajectory for the moon.

*          *          *

The moon landing was routine — which is to say, very much like Apollo 11 — which is to say, scary as hell.

They did not have a computer data overload like the one in Apollo 11 that made it look like they were going to crash. They had already had their electrical overload on liftoff.

They came down precisely where they were supposed to. What made it a scary-same-as was that the immediate area where they had planned to land was covered with small craters and boulders, and they had to search around for an area that wasn’t. Conrad flew the LEM while Bean kept his eyes on the instruments. As he swung them around toward his left, the LEM tilted crazily. Then Conrad found a clear spot and came down to land.

Landing on the moon throws up a storm of dust and small particles that obscure the ground and can damage the spacecraft. In the low gravity, it all takes a while to settle. One of the probes on the four feet of the lander touched the moon, a light came up on Bean’s board and he relayed the message. Conrad cut the rocket and the LEM fell, slowly due to the low gravity, to the moon’s surface.

As planned, not counting having to search for an alternate landing site.

Here’s a side note on what it is like to want to know things. I have been aware since the sixties that the LEM balances on the thrust of its rocket engine, and moves sideways to find a place to land. But how did it move sideways? Were there side thrusters like the ones which move big ships away from the dock? Was the main engine gimbaled? No, it turns out, the whole craft is tilted, so the main engine can move them sideways, operating like a helicopter.

So how do they tilt the LEM? Do they use the same attitude thrusters that change its orientation in space? That seems likely, but I’m not sure. Learning one thing just makes me curious to learn another.

Once they were down, there was work to do. In addition to the exploring and sample collecting like Apollo 11, they also set up the ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package) which would continue gathering and relaying information long after their moon walks were over. Conrad and Bean did two moon walks, and on the second one walked to the nearby Surveyor III spacecraft, the unmanned soft landing vehicle which had surveyed their landing site two years earlier. They removed a few parts for analysis back on Earth.

Once their time on the lunar surface was over and the LEM upper stage had rejoined the CSM, the LEM descent stage was given a controlled burn by remote control, then allowed to crash back to the lunar surface. This gave a test “seismic” event to calibrate the ALSEP. So if anyone mentions those six LEM descent stages still sitting on the moon, you can tell them no, there are five.

Apollo 12 splashed down late on November 24th. By the time it was launched, politicians were already dismantling Apollo, and America was yawning. We set out to beat the Russkies and we did it, so why were we still going to the moon?

Politics and public opinion work that way; science doesn’t. No one ever did one experiment and said he had the answer to any problem. No geologist ever looked at one tiny patch of ground and said he understood the whole Earth. Fifty missions would not have been too many to settle scientific questions about the moon, especially since each mission would have likely generated new and deeper questions.

Nevertheless, after November of 1969, only four more missions would land on the moon. Apollo 13 would fail to land, and Apollos 18, 19, and 20 would be cancelled.

Pete Conrad went on to command the first manned mission to Skylab. He died in 1999. (For information on Skylab, see posts 297, 298, and 299.)

Dick Gordon was backup Commander to Apollo 15 and was scheduled to finally land on the moon as Commander of Apollo 18, until it was cancelled. He died in 2017.

Alan Bean Commanded the second manned mission to Skylab and was backup Commander for the Apollo-Soyuz mission. He died in 2018.

After leaving NASA, Bean studied art and became a painter of lunar subjects. He said, “I’m the only man who can paint the moon, because I’m the only one who knows whether that’s right or not.”

There are about a million books on Apollos 11 and 13, but locally I could only find one book on Apollo 12. Fortunately, that one was full of Bean’s own recollections and paintings. See Apollo: an eyewitness account.

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