Monday, 4 February 2013

The Intrepid has landed – the Apollo 12 Mission

We all know about Apollo Eleven; “One small step for man…” and all that. And we all know about Apollo “Houston we have a problem!” Thirteen. Somewhat overlooked in between the epoch-making triumph of the first moon landing and the against-the-odds survival story that made the failed Apollo 13 mission Hollywood blockbuster material, came the very successful second moon landing conducted by the crew of Apollo 12 just four months after Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins made history.

Being in the process myself of developing an interest in matters astronomical having recently acquired my first telescope I found myself wondering this very thing as I contemplated a map of the lunar surface and found that Apollo 12 has an interesting story of its own to tell, albeit without the drama of the missions which immediately preceded and followed it.

Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean on the moon

Within less than a minute of the mighty Saturn V rocket carrying the crew of Apollo 12 launching from Cape Kennedy, disaster threatened the mission. Astronauts Alan Bean, Dick Gordon and Pete Conrad aboard the command module named Yankee Clipper experienced a sudden loss of power to electrical systems and controllers on the ground briefly lost telemetry as the rocket was struck by lightning. The situation proved recoverable with no permanent damage and the rocket, watched by President Nixon, continued on its journey into the heavens.  This was the first time that a serving president had been present for an Apollo launch.

Docking with the lunar module Intrepid was successful and gave the crew the opportunity to inspect the command module for damage. The onward journey to the moon passed uneventfully enough as the crew broadcast TV pictures back to earth.

On November 19th 1969 the Intrepid, piloted by Conrad with Bean accompanying him, made its descent to the lunar surface. For this second mission a landing site in the region known as the Ocean of Storms had been selected. The crew of the Intrepid were tasked with landing close to and recovering parts from the lunar probe Surveyor III. In an impressive display of pilot skill Conrad brought the landing module down within six hundred feet of Surveyor III. On stepping from the ladder Conrad commented that it may have been a small step for the taller Armstrong but it was a long one for him! Bean and Conrad spent 31 hours in total on the lunar surface, far longer than the Apollo 11 mission. During that time they conducted three moonwalks; setting up the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP), recovering samples from the surface and retrieving parts from Surveyor III.

Surveyor III with Intrepid in background

Having made a successful return to orbit and reunited with Gordon aboard the Yankee Clipper the crew made a photographic study of the moon from orbit to aid future landings and monitored the seismic impact of the ascent stage of the lunar module as it plummeted back to the lunar surface. On November 24th the Yankee Clipper made a successful return to earth, splashing down in the Pacific to be recovered by the USS Hornet. At this point Bean proved that misfortunes come in threes as he was hit on the head and knocked unconscious by a flying camera. Earlier in the mission Bean had accidentally destroyed the crew’s cine-camera by pointing it at the sun and had misplaced the camera timer intended to take a picture of both astronauts on the moon from the lunar module.

Both Bean and Conrad went into space again with the Skylab missions but Gordon, who was scheduled to walk on the moon with the cancelled Apollo 18 mission, never made it into space again.

Apollo 12 Splashdown in the Pacific

British Pathe footage of Apollo 12 launch

 NASA Apollo 12 Page

The Apollo 12 mission in detail

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