Apollo 12 – a lightning return to the Moon

America’s second crewed mission to the lunar surface got off to a dramatic start when the Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 12 was twice hit by lightning as it climbed into the sky.

Pete Conrad checks out Surveyor 3. The Apollo 12 lander is visible on the horizon. Image credit: NASA

The launch, from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on November 14, 1969, was being watched by President Richard Nixon and went ahead despite local cloud and rain. On board were mission Commander Pete Conrad and Alan Bean, who would walk on the Moon, plus Dick Gordon who would stay with the Command Service Module, named Yankee Clipper. Bean was making his first spaceflight.

The two lightning strikes briefly cut off power in the spacecraft and contact with mission control, but the rocket’s first stage continued to fire, lifting the crew towards Earth orbit. The spacecraft momentarily switched to battery mode before the astronauts restored main power and checked out the electrical system.

Once en route to the Moon, the routine procedure of docking with the Lunar Module, dubbed Intrepid, was performed before Conrad and Bean entered the lander to check for any possible storm damage. Fortunately, none was found.

Once more, the spacecraft was put into lunar orbit by a rocket firing while on the far side of the Moon. A second burn two orbits later set things up for the landing. Conrad and Bean entered Intrepid and on November 19, the Lunar Module separated to begin its descent.

Their target was a landing site in Oceanus Procellarum, the Sea of Storms, and with Apollo 11 having landed several kilometres from its intended spot, NASA was keen to make Intrepid’s touchdown as precise as possible.

It was a much dustier location, and the cloud kicked up by the descent thruster obscured Conrad’s view in the final moments before landing. But Intrepid came down bang on target and just 164 metres from NASA’s robotic lander Surveyor 3, which had been sitting there since April 1967.

A few hours later, the first EVA began as Conrad stepped down the ladder and onto the lunar surface. And unencumbered by the demands of making history, his first words were a lot less formal than Neil Armstrong’s had been four months earlier. Referring to the Apollo 11 commander’s “One small step”, Conrad declared: “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”

The crew of Apollo 12, Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Alan Bean. Image credit: NASA

The first excursion by Conrad and Bean, lasting just under 4 hours, was spent setting up a more complex set of instruments on the Moon than the previous mission, known as the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, or ALSEP. One failure came when Bean was setting up the TV camera and it was accidentally pointed at the Sun, destroying its sensitive electronics. However, the Moonwalkers’ hand-held camera meant they brought many photos of their adventure back to Earth.

On November 20, the pair began a second EVA, collecting a useful batch of rock samples from the ground and below the surface for scientists to study. But the highlight of the 3 hour 49 minute moonwalk was when they visited Surveyor 3 and removed parts of it to take home. On their return, it was found that bacteria taken to the Moon by the probe had apparently survived the hostile conditions.

Intrepid’s ascent stage lifted off the Moon’s surface 31 hours and 31 minutes after landing to dock with Yankee Clipper and reunite the three crew members. The Lunar Module was then jettisoned to crash deliberately on the Moon, producing an artificial “moonquake” that the seismology experiment left behind could learn from.

The journey home ended when the Command Module separated from the Service Module and splashed down in the Pacific, where the astronauts were picked up by the USS Hornet.

Next: Apollo 13 – Houston, we’ve had a problem