Great AND colorful

In celebration of Artemis I’s successful launch at the beginning of what will, hopefully, mark a successful flight to the moon and the first small step in our next set of giant steps on the moon and beyond, I am posting this article, which originally appeared in issue 26 of my ‘zine Metanoia.

“If you can’t be great, be colorful.” ~ Pete Conrad, Apollo 12 commander

A couple issues ago, in my article about Jacques Tati, I noted that the only one of Tati’s feature-length films that I hadn’t seen was Trafic. I finally watched it, and one of the surprises in it was the way that Tati wove television coverage of the second Apollo lunar mission– Apollo 12– into the movie.

Tati may have been a space geek, because Apollo 12 has become a favorite mission of space geeks everywhere.

Funny; until recently, I would have been puzzled by this. I started really following the space program at age four, with Apollo 7.

Most people, if pinned down, might be able to name four missions: Apollo 1 (where three astronauts died during a routine preflight test), Apollo 8 (the first manned lunar orbital flight), Apollo 11 (the first manned lunar landing), and Apollo 13 (the one that Tom Hanks made the movie about). But I always prided myself that I’d seen every launch live, from Apollo 7 through the Apollo-Soyuz mission, and could tell you a little bit about each one…

…except Apollo 12. Honestly, if you’d asked me, I might have said Well, it was the second lunar landing…

So why all the space geek love for it?

After delving into videos and articles about the mission and the crew, I get it. Apollo 12 has become my favorite mission, mainly because of its colorful crew.

Apollo had other colorful crews, of course. The Apollo 7 crew (Wally Schirra, Walt Cunningham, and Donn Eisele) was certainly colorful to me at age four (the signs the crew held up during their TV broadcasts– KEEP THOSE CARDS AND LETTERS COMING IN, FOLKS!— were high comedy to me back then), but unfortunately, the crew was colorful to NASA in a different way. Sinus infections threw the astronauts off their game; they rankled their superiors by refusing to carry out several assigned tasks, including a scheduled TV broadcast; when the crew splashed down, the astronaut office told the trio that they’d never fly another mission, and they didn’t. Schirra retired and is probably best remembered as CBS TV’s space commentator alongside Walter Cronkite.

You might think that Apollo 12 would’ve had similar image problems. Mission commander Conrad, after all, had washed out of the testing for the original Mercury Seven astronaut corps because, as he told it, he questioned (some might say “mocked openly”) the endless psychiatric and medical tests that NASA gave the candidates.

“I think they classified me as ‘psychologically unfit to fly,’” Conrad said with a chuckle, but he tried again and joined NASA to fly with Project Gemini.

Conrad and Dick Gordon were the veterans on Apollo 12, with Al Bean the rookie, and the sense of play they brought to their flight stood in contrast to the straitlaced demeanor of the Apollo 11 crew, who were unquestionably the most qualified astronauts, but who also came across as three Joe Fridays in spacesuits.

Compare recordings and transcripts of the two missions. Apollo 11 was exciting and memorable because it was the first, but during the landing, the most memorable voice was Buzz Aldrin’s flatlined readouts of altitude and position –“Two and a half down, kicking up some dust… drifting to the right a little… four forward… four forward.” When they touched down to become the first human beings to land on another world, everyone seemed elated but them. Nope; had to read the post-landing checklist. Yes, they had a job to do and they were admirably All Business, but if you didn’t know what almost happened right before they landed (they had ten seconds of fuel left when they touched down), you certainly wouldn’t have known from their voices.

By contrast, in the transcripts of the Apollo 12 landing, you can almost hear the excitement in Conrad’s and Bean’s voices when they spotted the designated landing site and started their final descent:

Conrad – Hey, there it is! There it is! Son of a gun! Right down the middle of the road!
Bean – Outstanding! 42 degrees, Pete.
Conrad – Hey, it’s targeted right for the center of the crater! I can’t believe it!
Bean – Amazing! Fantastic! 42 degrees, babe!

I’ve listened to and watched footage of the Apollo 11 landing numerous times, but I don’t remember (and can’t imagine) either Aldrin or Armstrong calling each other “babe” at any point during their mission.

Perhaps because one of the seldom-acknowledged subplots of the Apollo 11 mission was that Armstrong and Aldrin reportedly didn’t like each other too much; they had to work together, but their camaraderie was strictly professional. That may account for some of the coolness.

By contrast, the Apollo 12 crew seemed to not only like each other, but they seemed to be having fun, in spite of the seriousness of their task. This was most evident in the first five minutes after launch, when the entire mission could have been scrubbed.

On Apollo 12’s scheduled flight date, the weather was rainy, but no one at NASA seemed concerned: the Saturn V rocket was possibly the most powerful vehicle ever constructed; the astronauts had run sims (simulator tests) for every possible contingency; why should a little rain stop the show? So Apollo 12 lifted off on schedule, and for the first half minute, everything seemed nominal, as they liked to say… but then, about 35 seconds into the flight recording, we hear a burst of electrostatic crackling, followed by Conrad’s voice on the in-cabin recorder: “What the hell was THAT?”

It didn’t take Conrad long to figure it out: “I’m not sure we didn’t just get hit by lightning, gang!”

In the words of spaceflight historian Amy Shira Teitel, “As the Saturn V tore through the electrically-charged storm clouds, the rocket and its contrail acted like a lightning rod (and) was struck by lightning twice.” This shorted out the command module power supply, and nearly every alarm light on the capsule’s instrument panel started flashing. Conrad’s recitation of the alarms is almost comically overwhelming, and even if you have no idea what he’s talking about– “I’ve got three fuel cell lights, an AC bus light, a fuel cell disconnect, AC bus overload one and two, main bus A and B out” –it’s clear that things weren’t “nominal.”

That wasn’t the only problem, though: in mission control, the usual stream of data from the capsule was suddenly indecipherable; in Teitel’s words, “a complete disaster of telemetry.” The telemetry was the means of communication between the spacecraft computers and the ground control computers. No telemetry meant no mission.

While everyone in Apollo 12 and on the ground tried to sort everything out, a mission control manager, John Aaron, recognized the gibberish they were receiving from the spacecraft. In an almost-forgotten simulation, a power failure had caused a platform called the Signal Conditioning Electronics (SCE) to malfunction, which meant that the spacecraft could no longer send coherent telemetry to the ground. Aaron remembered that in the sim, switching the SCE platform from NORMAL power to an auxiliary power source got the telemetry working again.

So Aaron passed on the word: “Tell them to set SCE to AUX.”

Conrad’s reply: “FCE to AUX? What the hell’s that?”

They repeated “SCE;” Bean flipped the SCE switch to AUX; telemetry resumed; and the crew reset the power supply and other systems.

On a cabin recording, the crew laughed as they discussed the first three minutes of the flight:

Gordon – God darn almighty, wasn’t that something, babe?
Conrad – Wasn’t that a sim they just gave us?
Gordon – Jesus! That was something else. I never saw so many… (laughing) There were so many lights up there I couldn’t even read them all!

When Conrad spoke to mission control, he said, “I think we need to do a little more all-weather testing.”

Five days later, when Conrad went down the ladder of the lunar module to become the third man to walk on the moon, he said, “Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me!”

Long, great, AND colorful.

METANOIA is my print-only ‘zine, published twice a month or so.
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