‘SCE to Aux’: Remembering Apollo 12’s Hair-Raising Ride to the Moon, 50 Years Ago (Part 1)

In drizzle and with ominous thunderstorms and lightning in the area, Apollo 12 takes flight on 14 November 1969, 50 years ago this month. Photo Credit: NASA

Look up “1969” on Wikipedia and the image that appears time and again is related in some way, shape or form to Apollo 11, which saw astronauts Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin achieve humanity’s long-held dream to set foot on another world. Making landfall on the Moon—and Armstrong’s now-famous “one small step”—was only the first in a series of landing missions which would go on to see 12 men walk the dusty lunar surface, go cross-country on its undulating terrain, find some of the most ancient rocks in the Solar System and suffer indigestion from potassium-laced orange juice.

But only on Apollo 12, which flew 50 years ago this month, in November 1969, could astronauts declare that they had made up their own first words on the Moon; only on Apollo 12 could they truly say that they had used pictures of Playboy girls to guide them to their allotted tasks; and only on Apollo 12 would they return to lunar orbit and be instructed to float from one spacecraft to another, entirely in their birthday suits.

Apollo 12 crewmen (from left) Dick Gordon, Pete Conrad and Alan Bean listen to instructions, ahead of a water egress training exercise in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo Credit: NASA

For only Apollo 12 could have had a crew quite like Commander Charles “Pete” Conrad, Command Module Pilot (CMP) Dick Gordon and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Al Bean. Their friendship and camaraderie long preceded their selection into NASA’s astronaut corps. Conrad and Gordon had been shipmates in the U.S. Navy, whilst Bean was one of Conrad’s students at test pilot school. Conrad and Gordon flew together aboard Gemini and were teamed again for Apollo 12, alongside fellow astronaut Clifton “C.C.” Williams. However, Williams’ tragic death in late 1967 prompted Conrad to ask for Bean to replace him. As a crew, the three friends did everything together, even acquiring three gold Corvettes—their licence plates identifying their respective roles on the mission: CDR, CMP, LMP—from contacts at General Motors. Conrad even tried to smuggle a giant baseball cap into his personal belongings; an unsuccessful ruse which might have seen him bounce in front of the television camera on the Moon, wearing it over his helmet. It would give Earthbound audiences a chuckle, he hoped. Sadly, it was not to be.

But for a twist of fate, Conrad might well have become the first man to walk on the Moon, had Apollo 11 failed. In a conversation with the fiery Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in the summer of 1969, he became infuriated by her insistence that Neil Armstrong’s famous words had been put into his mouth by NASA brass. No amount of persuasion would change her mind, so Conrad bet her $500 that he would make up his own words when he set foot on the Moon. And on 19 November 1969, as he stepped off the footpad of the Lunar Module (LM) Intrepid and onto the dusty surface of the Ocean of Storms, the smallest member of NASA’s astronaut corps was true to his word. “That may have been a small one for Neil,” he wisecracked, “but it’s a long one for me!”

The Surveyor 3 landing craft, backdropped by the Apollo 12 lunar module Intrepid, as viewed by Pete Conrad and Al Bean at the Ocean of Storms in November 1969. Photo Credit: NASA

However, getting to the Moon proved problematic right from the start. Whilst Apollo 11 landed 4 miles downrange of its targeted spot in the Sea of Tranquility, Apollo 12’s scope was expanded to achieve a precise touchdown, within walking distance of NASA’s Surveyor 3 probe, which had alighted within a “nest” of craters on the Ocean of Storms in April 1967. And whereas Armstrong and Aldrin made a single Moonwalk, lasting barely 2.5 hours, Conrad and Bean would leave Intrepid on two occasions, totalling almost eight hours on the surface. The astronauts would visit Surveyor 3, pluck off a couple of its instruments to return to Earth and set up a monitoring station known as the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP).

The naval backgrounds of Conrad, Gordon and Bean led them to designate their LM “Intrepid” and their Command and Service Module (CSM) “Yankee Clipper”, choosing the names from dozens of suggestions posed by workers at North American and Grumman, who built the two spacecraft. Unfortunately, the Apollo 12 backup crew—Commander Dave Scott, CMP Al Worden and LMP Jim Irwin—happened to be an all-Air Force squad and this led to some significant “ribbing” later in the mission.

Al Bean (right) awaits insertion into Command and Service Module (CSM) Yankee Clipper on 14 November 1969, as Pete Conrad prepares to enter the hatch. Photo Credit: NASA

Early on 14 November 1969, Conrad, Gordon and Bean left their crew quarters at Cape Kennedy to cold, grey and drizzly conditions, with rain showers 80 miles (130 km) to the north and a thick layer of overcast cloud at 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). It seemed probable that Apollo 12 would not launch that day. But the crew boarded Yankee Clipper and lay in their couches as storm clouds rolled overhead, the skies periodically brightening, then darkening. At length, Launch Director Walter Kapryan gave a definitive “Go for Launch” and Conrad responded that the Navy was always willing to support NASA’s all-weather testing. It was a cocky statement that he would live to regret.

At 11:22 a.m. EST, the Saturn V rocket roared aloft from Pad 39A, watched by more than 3,000 invited guests, including President Richard Nixon. Quickly, the rocket disappeared into the murky cloud. Then something went badly wrong. For the astronauts, a bright flash, a roar of static, the wailing master alarm and a caution-and-warning panel lit up like a Christmas tree gave them a shock; even their worst simulation had never shown up so many failures. All three fuel cells went down, the AC power buses were gone and Yankee Clipper’s gyroscopic platform drifted. “Okay, we just lost the platform, gang,” Conrad calmly radioed to Mission Control. “I don’t know what happened here. We had everything in the world drop out.”

Apollo 12 launch and commentary. Video Credit: NASA/YouTube

What had happened was that the 36-story Saturn V had been struck by lightning. The first strike was clearly visible from the ground, hitting the rocket at 36.5 seconds into the flight and travelling down its long exhaust plume, all the way back down to Pad 39A. At 1.2 miles (1.9 km) in length, Apollo 12 had unwillingly become the world’s longest lightning rod. Yankee Clipper’s systems shut themselves down in response to the massive electrical surge, but the worst was not over. In a view recorded by long-distance cameras at the launch pad, another strike knocked out its gyroscopes.

With the spacecraft running on backup batteries, Conrad’s decision was to pull the abort handle and waste several hundred million dollars’-worth of Moonship or wind up in low-Earth orbit with an electrically-dead spacecraft. He chose to hold out as long as possible and, fortunately, the Saturn V’s guidance system was unaffected and delivered them smoothly into orbit. But Flight Director Gerry Griffin was convinced he would have to order an abort. Before he did so, he checked in with the 24-year-old Electrical, Environmental and Communications Officer (EECOM) John Aaron for a recommendation. And Aaron had seen this problem on a previous simulation. “Flight, try SCE to Aux,” he told Griffin, instructing the crew to move a switch for the Signal Conditioning Equipment to its Auxiliary position. Bean promptly complied and the data returned to Mission Control’s screens. SCE converted raw instrumentation signals into usable computer data and John Aaron had effectively saved the second manned landing mission to the Moon.

There was much guts-and-glory in Mission Control that day, none more so than Griffin himself, who made the decision to press on. “It was a decision that only Flight could make,” recalled veteran flight director Chris Kraft. “Gerry made it…one of the gutsiest decisions in all of Apollo and I was proud of it.”

The second part of this article will appear next weekend.

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