15 – 25 November 1969
by Hamish Lindsay
Now that a complete Moon landing mission had been successfully accomplished with Apollo 11, we settled down to support a steady stream of missions to the Moon, aware things could go horribly wrong, but comfortable in the knowledge that the hardware and personnel could do it. All those moments of anguish we experienced with the unknowns of Apollo’s 8 and 11 faded into the past; we now had a straightforward job to do. The sound of astronauts talking and walking around the Moon became quite normal around the rooms and corridors of Honeysuckle Creek. We prepared for a repeat success of Apollo 11 with the next mission, Apollo 12.
Major changes from Apollo 11 included the possible use of a hybrid trajectory rather than a free-return trajectory and scheduling two periods of lunar surface exploration by both crewmen. Hybrid trajectories were fuel-saving flight paths which, unlike free-return trajectories, would not return the spacecraft to earth if the service module’s main propulsion system failed to put it into lunar orbit. They were designed so that in case of such a failure the lunar module’s descent engine could correct the resulting flight path (which might put the spacecraft with its three occupants into solar orbit) for return to earth.
Apollo 12 began with 10 landing sites to choose from. This was reduced to 5, including site 5, the western mare site preferred by the scientists, and the Surveyor III site. Chairman of the Apollo Site Selection Board, Major General Sam Phillips, chose the Surveyor III site as the target for Apollo 12, though the scientists unanimously rejected the choice. They considered the inert spacecraft to be an attractive nuisance that would divert the astronauts from more important work. However, the opportunity to recover some components from the Surveyor spacecraft for analysis, and demonstrating a pin point landing was too good to miss, so the Surveyor III site was confirmed for Apollo 12.
The Apollo 12 landing site, with the other landing sites for comparison.
Deployment of the first ALSEP was high on the priority list, since scientists had been disgruntled by the decision to fly a simplified package of surface instruments on Apollo 11. Geologists wanted the Apollo 12 astronauts to be somewhat more selective than their predecessors in collecting samples and stressed the importance of documenting (photographing and describing) them. They also preferred more rocks and less dust, if possible.
Originally the Lunar Module pilot for Apollo 12 was listed to be Clifton Williams. Alan Bean was scheduled for the Apollo Applications Program, to follow Apollo. At the time Conrad and his crew were training for the first lunar landing as back up crew, but the game of musical chairs was still playing, and the music stopped again on 5 October 1967. Williams was flying home to see his dying father when his T-38 jet went into an uncontrollable roll and crashed, too low for his parachute to save him. Bean couldn’t believe his ears when he heard his old mate Conrad asking him to join his crew as Lunar Module pilot.
Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon, Alan Bean.
The astronauts, Charles Pete Conrad, Alan Bean and Dick Gordon, were a team of close friends from well before they joined NASA. All Navy pilots, they had been shipboard cabin-mates flying F-4’s off the carrier USS Ranger.
I first met Conrad at Carnarvon when he was Capcom for the Gemini III mission, before he had been into space. At first I thought he was an eccentric (but nice) character. Not at all what I had imagined a Top Gun test pilot to be. He would be studying at a table in the canteen, and would suddenly jump up and prance around going, “Doop, de doop – doop doop….” to no-one in particular, then sit down and bend over his books again. It was just him. He was to prove a Top Gun in space, turning out to be one of the outstanding astronauts in the Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs. In fact he was the best astronaut in the Apollo simulators, able to handle the toughest assignments thrown at him. I always loved the story of the time he was shoved a sheet of blank white paper by the psychologists and asked what did he see in it? “It’s upside down,” he answered. That probably sums him up.
The back up crew members were Dave Scott, Al Worden, and Jim Irwin.
The Mission Insignia showed an American clipper ship for a navy crew and to anticipate the spacecraft providing a means of travelling between the planets the way ships opened the seas to commerce. The four stars represented the crew plus Clifton Williams.
Pete Conrad, Commander of the mission: “A lot of people thought we named the spacecraft after naval vessels like the USS Intrepid which we did not. There was a lot of controversy over the names because the military was not too popular in those days in the United States and some people accused us of using military names for our spacecraft when in fact they did not have the proper knowledge. North American Rockwell built the Command Module and we had people out there submit names for the spacecraft with twenty five words why the name. We had them do the same thing at Grumman Aircraft for the Lunar Module. I wanted to let the people that built them name them. Yankee Clipper was named after the US clipper ship, one of the first US ventures around the world in the maritime world. The guy at Grumman named the Lunar Module Intrepid based on the Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word. We then picked the final names out of the lists.”
Parkes was called up for this mission. Dr Bowen, Chief of the Radio Physics Division, decided that the tower had to be reinforced before the next mission, which meant 7 weeks of working two shifts per day. The control room was completely rearranged and equipment from the tracking ship Vanguard was added. Staff from Tidbinbilla replaced the NASA crew that operated the back-end equipment such as the special receivers and tape recorders during Apollo 11. Parkes was ready to support on 7 November. It had been given a new parametric amplifier to improve the noise figure but suffered ‘out of specification’ problems, combined with offset and on-axis feed installation, the antenna wasn’t declared Green and ready to support the mission until 14 November.
At Honeysuckle we went into this mission with a “Red, can support USB Receiver/Exciter Feed System.” The spurs were still haunting us, though not expected to cause any problems. Confident it would not affect the mission, Goddard decided to call us Green just before launch. On 28 October we found we had an X-Y Encoder non-linearity problem on the antenna. Frank Campbell installed a replacement encoder, which showed a 0.01 degree shift in the Y axis so the system was declared “Red, can support”, but as the discrepancy was within specification limits Goddard decided to declare the system “Green” on 5 November.
President and Mrs Nixon watched the launch from the Firing Room at the Cape, the only time an American President in office witnessed an Apollo launch. After the launch he addressed the team in the Fire Control Room. He promised his government would back the American space program, then referring to the three astronauts in part of the speech, he said,
Apollo 12 Commander Pete Conrad suits up prior to launch. Note the suit technician putting a sandwich in Pete’s pocket!
Chris Kraft, Director of Flight Operations, said: “Launch has always been an uneasy time for me, and I always looked forward to successful separation from the booster. When one adds to this an apprehension caused by bad weather over the Cape, I become even more concerned. It turned out that all of these elements were present for Apollo 12.”
As if to prepare this crew of navy aviators for the Ocean of Storms, the launch area was lashed by heavy rain during the countdown. The astronauts gazed uneasily at the rivulets of water running down the windows as they went through their checklists. Luckily, when the time to launch was reached a reconnaissance aircraft from the Air Force’s Eastern Test Range reported favourable conditions with the nearest lightning some 30 kilometres away.
“Due to the fact that the weather predictions were as unpredictable as they were, and all our minimums were met, we decided to launch. Once we got the report back from the aircraft that we did not have an electrical potential, all of our minimums were satisfied,” explained Walter Kapryan, the Launch Director. So, still blanketed by light rain, Apollo 12 was launched into the overcast stratocumulus cloud with a base of 2,100 feet above the ground. The temperature was 20°C, humidity was high at 92%, and the wind was light at 13 knots from the west.
Apollo 12 at ‘launch commit’ as seen from the tower.
Rising from Pad 39A at 11.22 am EST Friday 14 November (0222 AEST Saturday 15 November) in defiance of Mission Rule 1-404, which said no vehicle shall be launched in a thunderstorm, the huge Saturn V vanished into the murk.
Apollo 12 lifts off the pad.
At 22 seconds Conrad called down, “It’s a lovely lift-off. It’s not bad at all.”
Hear the launch as recorded by Bernard Scrivener at Honeysuckle.
HIT BY LIGHTNING
Observers then saw two bright blue streaks of lightning right where the rocket had been!
The strike’s path seemed to go from a cloud to the spacecraft then via the rocket’s exhaust tail to the launch tower on the ground beneath. Pete Conrad showed why top test pilots are different from the rest of us when 36 seconds after lift-off, at a height of 1,859 metres, they were hit by lightning. At 52 seconds they were hit again. The control panel indicators went haywire and the attitude ball began pitching. If the vehicle really was beginning to fly erratically there were only seconds before it would break up and explode. The abort handle was waiting at Conrad’s elbow, but he calmly announced to the ground controllers: “Where are we going?”
Were they still on course? Looking out the window was no help – all they could see were thick clouds. Their attitude ball was no help either – it was pitching rapidly with the second hit, but Conrad felt by instinct they were still on course so didn’t reach for the abort handle. It was a gutsy decision – if the booster slewed too far off course the vehicle would break apart and explode.
With the master alarm ringing in his ears, Alan Bean thought he knew all the spacecraft’s electrical faults, but looking along the panel of glowing warning lights he couldn’t recognise a pattern to any of them – he had never seen so many lights before.
Conrad: “I had a pretty good idea what had happened. I had the only window at the time the booster protector covered the other windows and I saw a little glow outside and a crackle in the headphones and, of course, the master caution and warning alarms came on immediately and I glanced up at the panel and in all the simulations they had ever done they had never figured out how to light all eleven electrical warning lights at once by Golly, they were all lit, so I knew right away that this was for real.
Our high bit rate telemetry had fallen off the line so on the ground they weren’t reading us very well on what was happening, so they got us to switch to the backup telemetry system. The ground then got a look at us and they could see that a bunch of things had fallen off the line, but there weren’t any shorts or anything bad on the systems so we elected to do nothing until we got through staging. When we got through staging then we went about putting things back on line.”
Down in mission control this was Gerry Griffin’s first mission as a Flight Director. He urged his team to concentrate on the problem. The controllers staring at their screens saw the normally steady flow of figures from the spacecraft filing past were suddenly replaced by a meaningless jumble of characters. All the telemetry signals had dropped out! Suddenly the spacecraft crew and flight controllers were flying blind, only the Saturn guidance and computer system was keeping the flight going.
John Aaron was the EECOM, the flight controller in charge of the Command and Service Module electrical systems, and he recalled,
“You must remember we did not have a live television view of the launch. I was just looking at control screens which only had data and curves on them. The first thing I realised was we had a major electrical anomaly. But I did recognise a pattern. When we trained for this condition with our simulators it would always read zeros. It so happened that a year before I was monitoring an entry sequence test from the Kennedy Space Center, and the technicians inadvertently got the whole spacecraft being powered by only one battery. I remembered the random pattern that generated on the telemetry system, and for some reason just filed it off to the back of my mind. I did go in the office the next day to reconstruct what happened and found this obscure SCE (Signal Condition Equipment) switch. Few people knew it was there, or what it was for.
It was lucky I was the EECOM monitoring the test that night and when it turned out that we had the problem, I happened to be the EECOM on the console. I don’t think any other EECOM would have recognised that random pattern. Our simulators did not train us for it, but I saw it through the procedural screw up. Although the test happened a year before, that pattern was etched in my mind, and I am talking about a pattern of thirty or forty parameters. Instead of reading zeros, one would read six point something, another read eight point something, which were nonsense numbers for a 28 volt power system.”
Lightning plays around the launch tower as Apollo 12 ascends towards orbit.
Griffin called Aaron, “How is it looking......... EECOM what do you see?”
Aaron scanned his displays before answering, “Flight, have the crew try the SCE to Aux.” Griffin didn’t know what Aaron was talking about but at 1 minute 36 seconds passed the instruction on to Capcom Jerry Carr who called the spacecraft,
In the spacecraft Bean heard Carr’s instruction, found the Signal Condition Equipment switch, reached across to flip it down to “Auxiliary” which selected an alternate power supply, and order was restored to the flight controllers’ television screens.
Aaron, “We now got back live telemetry that was representative of the actual readouts on the spacecraft. We then realised that the fuel cells, the main power source, had been kicked off the line, all three of them, and the whole spacecraft was now being powered by the emergency re-entry batteries in the Command Module, which worked on a lower voltage. They were never designed to carry the full load of the Command and Service Module in a launch configuration. The next call I made was to reset the fuel cells and the voltage was returned to normal.
I felt quite relieved just to get those guys into low Earth orbit, but I will never forget what Chris Kraft said to me that day, he said, ‘Young man, don’t feel like we have to go to the Moon today, but on the other hand if you and the other systems people here can quickly check this vehicle out and you feel comfortable with how to do that then we’re okay to go, but don’t feel you have to be pressured to go to the Moon today after what happened. We don’t have to go to the Moon today.’
We then dreamed up a way to do a full vehicle system checkout by improvising and cutting and pasting some of the crew procedures that they already had.”
Nothing serious seemed to have happened, so while still hurtling ever faster up into space, the crew had restored all the systems except the inertial guidance system, and that was set by the 32 minute mark as they shot into the darkness over Africa.
AOS at Carnarvon was at 0314:15 AEST, much earlier than predicted, inferring that the spacecraft was in a lower orbit than planned. More agonising by the flight controllers in the Trench was replaced by relief when it was found that an atmospheric anomaly had bent the signal at the horizon.
Over Carnarvon Conrad tried to confirm to the ground that they had been hit by lightning,
Hear the pass as recorded from Net 1 and 2 by Bernard Scrivener at Honeysuckle.
Carnarvon was followed by a brief 3 minute 22 second pass over Honeysuckle Creek at 0323. Carnarvon saw the second time around at 1847 AEST, when the Go for the Moon was passed up, but Honeysuckle Creek did not get a second Earth orbit pass.
There was some concern that the lightning may have damaged the parachute system in the nose of the Command Module or affected some of the Lunar Module systems at launch, particularly the highly sensitive diodes of the landing radar. The flight controllers realised that if the parachutes had been damaged the crew were going to die anyway, so the mission might as well continue on to the Moon.
Apollo 12 entered a 185.4 by 181.1 kilometre Earth orbit at 0233:43 AEST with a period of 88.2 minutes and a velocity of 28,053 kilometres per hour. A Saturn IVB 5 minute 41.1 second burn at the end of the second orbit boosted their speed by 1,662.4 kilometres per hour to send them off to the Moon at 0515:13 AEST. The previous Apollo lunar missions flew a free-return trans-lunar coast, meaning the trajectory would sling-shoot the spacecraft around the Moon and back to Earth. Apollo 12 flew a hybrid free-return so that the LM’s descent propulsion system could be used for a safe return to Earth if the spacecraft failed to enter lunar orbit.
After separation at 0540:04 AEST the LM was retrieved from the Saturn IVB at 0548:53 and the Saturn IVB rocket was sent off into an Earth-Moon orbit. It was planned to go into a solar orbit, but due to a longer ullage burn the rocket ended up in an Earth-Moon orbit.
The spacecraft may have been Go, but on the ground at Honeysuckle Creek we were having some fun. At 2252 AEST on the first day our Command Computer was cycling during our 2-way track and three uplinked commands did not appear on the history printout and five minutes later 5 command executes did not appear on the post-fault command history. Mission control then requested we hand over 2-way to Guam at 2259:04 AEST and 2-way was handed back to us at 2304:04. There were a total of five computer faults over a period of 94 hours, which were never definitely located.
At 1405 AEST on 18 November, just before Apollo 12 was due to go into lunar orbit, our Univac 1218 computer was declared “Red, cannot support” when it could not operate CADCPS and diagnostics without failing. This was the computer to generate the predictions to point the antenna.
Ron Chivers with the Honeysuckle Creek 1218 on the right.
Photo: Ron Chivers.
The Wing 1218 computer was used to process the Prime 29-point acquisition messages until the problem was partly fixed and the computer was declared “Red, can support” at 1528 on 20 November until the end of the mission. Never actually found, the intermittent fault disappeared when the printed circuit board located at 12C of Chassis 7 was removed and plugged back in again, so the fault was thought to be a dirty contact or the board not seating correctly, and the computer was declared Green well after the mission on 1 December.
INTO LUNAR ORBIT
After an uneventful journey of 80 hours 38 minutes across the void Apollo 12 arrived at the Moon and we had the first LOS behind the rim at 1333:46 AEST. Shortly after, Apollo 12 raced into a lunar orbit insertion orbit burn at 7,887 kilometres per hour. A 5 minute 52.25 second burn at 1353 AEST on Tuesday 18 November set the spacecraft into a 315.2 by 114.2 kilometre orbit.
During the first orbit good sharp television pictures of the lunar surface were sent back for 33 minutes at 1455 AEST.
Hamish Lindsay snapped this Polaroid in the USB area during the lunar orbit TV broadcast.
This is the picture as broadcast – from the Spacecraft Films Apollo 12 release.
As they were approaching the time for the LM to separate from the CSM, an anxious Conrad grunted to his friend “We’ve got to move through the checklist faster, Al.” Bean was taking time to make sure every step was right, as this time their lives were on the line, not like the simulations. He tried to go faster, knowing he had to, but afraid of making a mistake. They barely made the scheduled moment when the LM undocked at 1416 AEST 19 November.
Conrad and Bean remembered the Apollo 11 episode when some excess oxygen left in the connecting tunnel deflected them 6.4 kilometres away from their target. They had to do better, in fact they had to be perfect to land beside the Surveyor spacecraft, though before the mission they were advised to avoid drawing too much attention to landing beside the Surveyor in case they landed too far away to be able to walk to it.
Intrepid hangs above the lunar surface, just before its descent.
Intrepid flew across the desolate moonscape. All Conrad could see was a jumbled mass of similar shadows and craters in the panorama of the landing area spread in the window before him. How could they possibly pick out a particular crater in the time available? Remembering the trouble the experts had locating the Apollo 11 landing point, Conrad felt apprehensive about finding a speck, the Surveyor spacecraft and its particular crater, buried among these thousands of look-alikes.
As he flew down towards the lunar surface, Conrad glanced out his window to see if he could see the horizon. At 7,620 metres he spotted it along the bottom of the window, but found it didn’t help, so stuck to following his gauges and meters. He let the computer point Intrepid at the target and suddenly he spotted it on the LPD (Landing Point Designator, scales marked on the window) as they homed in to a pinpoint landing in the Snowman and the Surveyor III spacecraft, 2,029 kilometres west of the Apollo 11 landing site.
After taking over Program 66 manual control at a height of 122 metres Conrad found he had to sidestep the Surveyor crater:
“There it is!” Excerpt. 72kb mp3 runs for 35 seconds.
the full descent and landing as recorded at Honeysuckle from Net 1.
Conrad told Bean, “I gotta get over to my right (north)” and searched for a clear area just beyond the Snowman, skirting along the north rim of Surveyor Crater. He saw a suitable landing area between the Surveyor crater and Head Crater and wheeled around to his left to head for it. At 90 metres the rocket exhaust kicked up a raging dust storm and Conrad lost sight of the surface under the shooting bright streaks of dust blasting away from under their feet. To the astronauts the dust appeared to be flying to the horizon. Eyes glued to the instrument panel, occasionally flicking to look out the window, he had no idea whether there were threatening craters or boulders below, or not.
Intrepid homed in to a pinpoint landing on the target, Snowman and the Surveyor spacecraft. The blue contact light lit up; Bean announced “Contact light,” and Conrad shut down the rocket motor. They dropped vertically to land with a solid thump about 6 metres from the edge of the Surveyor crater at 1654:36 AEST on Wednesday 19 November. They were only 163 metres from the Surveyor III spacecraft, which had landed previously on 20 April 1967.
An incredulous Conrad remembered how he had asked trajectory specialist Dave Reed to target Intrepid for the middle of the Surveyor crater, not really believing he could do it. Apollo 12 used a new computer program called a Lear Processor, named after its developer William Lear, to minimise navigational errors using three tracking stations on Earth to correct Intrepid’s course as it passed by on its final orbit before landing, or it would have overshot the target by an estimated 1,277 metres.
Once Intrepid was safely down, Bean reached out a gloved hand and clapped Conrad on the shoulder, “Great landing, Pete. Outstanding, man.” Dick Gordon’s voice broke through, “Hello Intrepid – Congratulations from Yankee Clipper.”
The two astronauts began to plough through the post-landing checklist, while Gordon, orbiting in Yankee Clipper 96 kilometres above, searched through a 28 power telescope and spotted a speck of light with a shadow, then another speck nearby, about three hours after they landed:
With the Sun 6.6° above the lunar horizon at this time, the LM’s shadow was estimated to be 58 metres long.
They worked their way through the essential housekeeping procedures. Five and a half hours later, at 2132:35 AEST 19 November, with the Moon riding high just past Honeysuckle Creek’s zenith, Conrad emerged through the hatch and stood on the top of the LM’s ladder.
Pete Conrad at the top of the ladder – photographed by Alan Bean through the hatch.
the start of the first EVA as recorded at Honeysuckle.
Checking around he saw that they had landed about 9 metres from the Surveyor Crater rim. Elated, he leapt onto the Lunar Module’s footpad with both feet:
Nevil Eyre in the Honeysucle Creek video section. This photo was taken during Apollo 17.
Polaroid photo scanned by Ed von Renouard.