2009-11-14

Second Steps

What work I have done I have done because it has been play.
- Mark Twain

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the launch of Apollo 12. Fittingly, the anniversary is passing unheralded in the shadow of news that water ice has been discovered on the moon, just as this second landing in the Apollo program has always existed in the shadow of the first. Network commentators remarked on the air at the time that Apollo 12 had an odd feeling of 'routine' about it compared to the event that had transfixed the world only four months earlier. Yet the flight merits our notice, not only for the bravery and discovery it represents in its own right, but for the accomplishment represented in that very feeling of being ordinary. With Apollo 12 the epic became the expected, the miraculous natural.

Apollo 12's crew was as exuberant and fun-loving as Apollo 11's crew had been taciturn. The solemnity of the previous mission gave the wisecracking crew of 12 the perfect foil. When commander Pete Conrad, not one of the tallest astronauts, stepped onto the moon his first words were 'Whoopee! That may have been a small one for Neil but it was a long one for me!'

Alan Bean's steering of the lunar module Intrepid marked Project Apollo's first precision landing. The landing of Apollo 11's Eagle had sent mission specialists scrambling to learn exactly where the astronauts were. Apollo 12's demanding flight plan called for a precise descent that would bring the Intrepid down within walking distance of Surveyor 3, an unmanned soft lander Nasa had sent to the moon a few years earlier. The precision landing was achieved. Conrad and Bean walked to the Surveyor craft as planned and collected samples.

Apollo 12, with two moonwalks, tripled the time Armstrong and Aldrin had spent on the surface. Enhancements in the lunar lander and space suits enabled a longer stay.

Mission planners included a few surprises in the multi-page task list taped to the arm of Conrad's suit. As he turned pages he found Snoopy cartoons and drawings of naked women with suggestions for areas to explore. Conrad, whose every word was going out on international broadcast, laughed as he turned pages and made oblique quips to mission controllers.

The video cameras of Apollo 12 offered the first colour images from the lunar surface. Soon after stepping onto the surface, though, Alan Bean pointed the camera at the sun. The result: no more live video. The public experienced most of the Apollo 12 moonwalks through audio broadcast. The lunar surface images we see today, such as the raising of the flag, are usually still images that went unseen until the astronauts returned to earth with the film cannisters.

The next mission, Apollo 13, reminded the public that sending human beings to the moon was still far from a routine endeavour. This near-disaster raised concerns among goverment officials that played a role in the decision to reduce the number of moon landings. Planned flights for Apollo 18, 19 and 20 were cancelled.

Pete Conrad retired from Nasa. He later died, in his 60s, when he tried to take a corner too fast on his motorcycle.

Alan Bean went on to serve as commander of a Skylab mission that set new records for longevity and productivity in space. After leaving Nasa he became an artist.

The third crew member, Dick Gordon, piloted the command module Yankee Clipper. This role, the same as that filled in Apollo 11 by Michael Collins, kept Gordon in lunar orbit during the time his crewmates explored the surface. Gordon was uncomplaining, but Conrad and Bean regretted that this necessity prevented their friend from joining them on the moon. In a painting Bean was later able to create the portrait they really wanted: all three men standing together on the moon, with the Intrepid in the background. Gordon exults in center stage; Bean, on the right, holds up two fingers behind Gordon's helmet.


On the return trip the Apollo 12 astronauts were the first human beings ever to witness a total eclipse of the sun by the earth. The 'diamond ring' effect was spectacular.

The period of totality was too dark to photograph well. Bean later painted the scene. A thin rainbow-coloured ring circled the darkened earth as sunlight filtered through the atmosphere. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness the astronauts could see a band of dim light at the equator. They recognized this band of light as lightning. A spot of white light glowed at the centre of the darkened planet, though, that had them mystified. They mentioned the white spot to a scientist when they returned. 'The full moon was behind you,' he said. 'You saw its reflection on the ocean.'

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Conductor's Notebook

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