"Houston, we are blind": 50 years after the Apollo 12 moon mission that could have ended in a tragedy.

After the successful landing of Apollo 11, NASA decided to schedule the next flight within the same year, following Kennedy's call to reach the Moon before the end of the decade.

the Apollo 12 moon mission picture.
Apollo 12 moon mission

But the Apollo 12 mission, which landed 50 years ago today, was going to be very different as far as complexity, objectives and the relationship between its crew - all of which could be seen as a result of the fact that the Apollo 12 mission was a very different one. 

Armstrong and Aldrin had always treated each other with distant respect. Perhaps imbued with the historical significance of their journey, there was no room for jokes or relaxed comments. 

Apollo 11 was an engineering voyage, the main objective of which was to demonstrate that descent on the Moon (and subsequent return) was possible. The precision of the maneuver did not matter much, as long as it was safe. And the fact of staying on the surface for only a couple of hours did not leave much room for science.

Much of it was consumed in protocol ceremonies, from the hoisting of the flag and subsequent telephone conference with Nixon to the unveiling of the commemorative badge. After their adventure, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins followed their respective paths, barely ever meeting again except on the rare occasions when NASA called them for a celebration.

From the first moment it was clear that this would be a very different team. Willing to perform an outstanding mission, the three men were aware that it was going to be the journey of their lives and they were going to enjoy it.

The Apollo 12 moon mission

The crew of Apollo 12 (Pete Conrad, Richard Gordon and Alan Bean) was much more than just that. All three were naval aviators and Conrad had been Gordon and Bean's instructor at the test pilot school where they established a good friendship; in terms of space experience, Conrad had served as co-pilot on Gemini 5 and flew back on Gemini 11, alongside Gordon himself.

The crew of Apollo 12
The crew of Apollo 12

Bean had never been out into space but Conrad had such a good opinion of him that he expressly asked to be assigned to the Apollo crew. As a Lunar Module pilot, he would have to go down to the Moon together with the commander.

A few weeks before the launch, Conrad had an encounter with Oriana Fallaci, an Italian journalist who was skeptical that Armstrong's first sentence had not been dictated by NASA's Public Relations department. Conrad assured her that they were free to say what they wanted and placed a $500 bet with her. When he reached the Moon, he would prove that.

But it wasn't easy to get to that point. The complications began as early as the launch, which was attended by the president of the United States as an honorary spectator. Nixon had greeted the Apollo 11 astronauts on their arrival at the aircraft carrier; not wanting to miss the spectacle of takeoff.

At the Kennedy Center the weather was terrible. Showers, low clouds and the threat of a thunderstorm. Under these conditions the safety rules advised to postpone the launch. But -perhaps because of Nixon's presence- it was decided to continue anyway. 

In the static-charged atmosphere, Saturn 5 had become a perfect lightning conductor. Not only because of its one hundred and ten metres of metal, but also because of the tail of flames it left behind. 

The plasma from the very high temperature exhausts was a superb conductor that almost reached the ground. Two discharges of perhaps 50,000 amperes made their way from the capsule through the rocket to the ground. This was just as it approached the area of maximum aerodynamic pressure.

The indicator lights on the control panel lit up like a Christmas tree. The three batteries that supplied electricity had switched off. Without power, the inertial platform lost all its references. The alarm signal resounded in the helmets of the three pilots. And in Houston, the monitors on the consoles following the course of the rocket changed to show a series of absurd and nonsensical signs.

The electrical systems were monitored by John Aaron, a 26-year-old engineer who had been working in Houston for four years. He was probably the only one in the room who had seen that same problem before, in the course of a simulation. Without power, the equipment preparing the telemetry data had shut down; hence the chaos he saw on his screen. And he knew there was a backup battery.

"Try SCE to AUX."

No one, not even the flight director or Conrad knew what he was talking about when he said "try SCE to AUX". SCE was a dark switch on the spaceship, barely used. Frenetically, Alan Bean looked for it in his area of the panel, found it and activated it. 

Miraculously, everything went back to normal. The blackout suffered by the ship had not affected the computer that guided the trajectory of the rocket, located 20 meters below. On board, all the adrenaline accumulated was discharged in the form of laughter.

In Houston there were also sighs of relief, although this was very mixed. Impossible to know if the discharges had damaged the parachute opening system. In that case, there was no solution.

A modification of the landing program had been prepared that would allow last-minute adjustments. Thus, when the lunar module (called Intrepid) appeared behind the Moon's disk, already on a descent trajectory, the tracking antennas determined that it was going to exceed its target by a kilometer and a half. 

Instead of recalculating the entire trajectory, Conrad introduced a command to deceive the computer, simulating that the target had moved that same distance further. A few minutes later, the lunar module landed on the same edge of the crater inside which the Surveyor was waiting. The distance between the two was a hundred meters.

Conrad and Bean stayed on the Moon for a day and a half and took two walks, with a total of more than seven hours of activity on the surface, divided into two exits. In the first, they installed a set of instruments powered by a small nuclear reactor; it was the first scientific station itself to remain on our satellite. The second was dedicated to collecting more than 30 kg of samples and, above all, to visiting the lonely Surveyor.

This time, Apollo 12 had a much improved television camera compared to the one that transmitted the ghostly views of Armstrong going down to the Moon. But it didn't help: When installing it on his tripod, Bean pointed it directly at the Sun (or a reflection of the lunar module), which hopelessly burned the image tube.

And it wasn't the only problem Bean had with the optical equipment. During the visit to the Surveyor, and due to an error in their instruction book, the astronauts forgot to change the film in their cameras for another color one. The spectacular photos of the astronauts next to the robot only exist in black and white.

And there was more: the trigger on the camera that Conrad was carrying lost a screw and became unusable. Later, a colored movie reel was forgotten there. The film camera that was supposed to film the docking procedure between the two modules jammed. 

The Journey of Apollo 12
The Apollo 12 capsule

And, to top it all, when the capsule landed on the sea it was so intense that another camera installed in the window came loose and went to hit Bean's very face, who lost consciousness for a few seconds. He would need six stitches.

Bean flew again as commander of one of the Skylab missions. Then he retired from NASA to pursue a career as a painter, his other great hobby. It is possible that, given his poor luck with photography equipment, he preferred to handle brushes and oils.

NASA has not been able to count on the presence of any of its astronauts to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this flight. Conrad died in 1999 as a result of a motorcycle accident. Gordon, in November 2017, less than two months after being widowed. And Bean, just four months ago, shortly after his 86th birthday.

Post a Comment