Meeting Pete Conrad

by John Lambie


GT3 was the first manned mission in the Gemini program and conducted during March 1965. The Communications Supervisor, Arch Durie, requested my presence on site for the simulations and the expected mission period. Because I was a PMG employee, approval through my direct supervisor, from the Geraldton Office was requested and approved. Simulations was a new experience for me and the Carnarvon station was very busy preparing, and additional American staff were in CRO.

One evening while conducting “brief system test” (BST108) and “detailed system test“ (DST108) on the Teletypewriter system throughout the station.

I was approached In the Teletype room by a stocky fellow, smiling broadly, and with a pronounced gap in his front teeth. He spoke to me in an American accent and introduced himself as Pete Conrad, Capcom. (Capsule communicator – I later found out that Charles (Pete) Conrad was an Astronaut). Pete had been directed to me for help in making a phone call to his wife in the States.

In 1965 making an international phone call was complicated, as two administrations, Post Master General Department (PMG), and the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC), were involved. Further the remote Carnarvon townsite had a magneto telephone system. Telephones had a generator handle that was wound to signal the switchboard operators at the Post Office, where calls were set up manually. At this time of night the operators would have finished their shifts and gone home. After hour, or emergency calls were answered by a single operator who slept in the switchboard room, and was awaken by a night switch alarm on any rare incoming call.

While talking with this very likeable friendly American, a call came over the SCAMA (Signal Conference and Monitoring Arrangement), announcing on the loudspeaker monitor, “Carnarvon – Goddard”.

This was a regular “circuit assurance” call from the Goddard Space Flight Centre (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Maryland (near Washington). The voice switchboard operator regular routine was to call each station  on the SCAMA circuit, a four-wire  party line that went around the world.

Normally these calls were answered by Arch Durie, or a Teletype Operator, with a “reading you strength 6”,  or whatever. Occasionally I would answer if Arch was absent and Operators busy, so I had become familiar with the Goddard operators.

On this occasion I took an initiative and asked the Goddard operator if they could connect the SCAMA call into the Bell Telephone System. The answer was yes! So I asked if he could set up a connection for CapCom, Pete Conrad so he could talk to his wife. I then handed the handset over to Pete and left it there.

Being a party line the connection would not have been very private, but at that time and with with most staff on the network busy I doubt if anyone would have noticed.

Some days later I got an invitation to join Pete and others at the Port Hotel for a drink, and later some of us went around to John Nugents home (UNIVAC Engineer).

I noticed that Pete Conrad was a very disciplined person and excused himself to go back to the hotel and sleep. CapCom duties during simulations and missions were very demanding, and Pete Conrad was a professional.

Later Charles “Pete” Conrad had a very illustrious career as an Astronaut on Gemini missions, Pete became the third man to walk on the Moon during Apollo 12, and later had an important role as commander of the Skylab mission.

I treasured the brief interaction I had with Pete Conrad in 1965, and remember with shock thirty years later, while I was driving home, half listening to the radio, when the ABC news announced the tragic motor cycle accident that took Pete Conrad’s life. RIP.