Charles "Pete" Conrad (1930-1999) was the third person, after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, to walk on the moon's surface. In November, 1969, he and Alan Bean made the second moon landing in history in their Apollo 12 lunar module Intrepid.
Conrad was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 2, 1930, to a wealthy stockbroker. He attended Princeton University, graduating in 1953 with a degree in aeronautical engineering. After college, Conrad joined the U.S. Navy and became a pilot. He later transferred to the test pilot school at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, a proving ground for many future astronauts, including Wally Schirra and James Lovell.
When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) made its selection of the "Mercury Seven" astronauts in 1959, Conrad jumped at the chance to become one of the first Americans in space. He made it to the final rounds of selection, but his open disgust with many of the physical and mental tests required of astronaut candidates earned the disapproval of NASA administrators, and he was edged out of the competition. Undaunted, he applied again with NASA's second group of astronauts in 1962, this time successfully.
Three years later, Conrad rocketed into space for the first time aboard the tiny two-man capsule, Gemini 5, with crewmate Gordon Cooper, one of the Mercury Seven astronauts. The two remained in space for a record-breaking five days in the phone-booth-sized ship before returning to Earth. Conrad flew another Gemini flight before that program ended, this time as commander of Gemini 11. He and crewmate Richard Gordon spent three days in Earth orbit, achieving a new altitude record, 850 miles, high enough to clearly see the curvature of the planet.
"We burned the Agena to make our climb to altitude," he later recalled on the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Magazine Web site. "That was really spectacular. I made the remark when we went over the top, 'Eureka, Houston, the Earth is really round,' and when I got back to Houston, I got all this mail from members of the Flat Earth Society telling me I didn't know what I was talking about."
This flight also tested the concept of artificial gravity in space for the first time, tethering the Gemini ship to the unmanned Agena booster, which had been launched separately, and spinning the two craft around each other to create centrifugal force. As Conrad said on the Air and Space Magazine Web site, "You have the Agena out on the end, and it's roughly the same weight as we were. I kept trying to back out to get the line taut before I tried to spin up, and no matter how gently I did it, it would always just get to the end and act like a rubber band and make the Agena start to wobble around or move towards us … and then we'd whip off into night and I wasn't exactly sure where the Agena was. Made it real interesting. Finally I just decided what I got to do is just keep thrusting back, away, and also radially to get the thing going, and once I finally decided to do it that way, why, it spun up right away."
But it was with the Apollo program that Conrad achieved the astronaut's ultimate dream, a walk on the moon. In November, 1969, just four months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic first moon landing, Conrad and crewmate Alan Bean touched down on the Ocean of Storms in the second moon landing. Betting that no one would remember the first words of the third man to walk on the moon, Conrad said, "Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me." As he later told Apollo Lunar Surface Journal editor Eric M. Jones, "I … had $500 riding on it, but I never got paid."
One of Apollo 12's primary missions was to perfect a pin-point landing on the moon's surface (Apollo 11's flight had been off by some four miles). Mission planners chose as a target the landing site of Surveyor 3, an unmanned probe that had been launched some two years before. If Conrad could land Intrepid within walking distance of the probe, he would know the mission was a success. Conrad did succeed in setting his and Bean's ship down within sight of Surveyor. It was an easy walk from Intrepid to Surveyor, and on their second moon walk (the early Apollo missions lacked the lunar rover of later missions), Conrad and Bean strolled over to take pictures and to remove the probe's television camera to return it to Earth for analysis. Conrad later noted that Surveyor's TV camera yielded what he called the most significant discovery of the Apollo missions to the moon. Bacteria from Earth accidentally deposited on Surveyor before its launch not only survived launch, but also two years in the vacuum and extreme temperatures of the lunar surface.
Conrad and Bean had also planned an illicit little task of their own at the Surveyor landing site. The task was written as "Perform D.P." on the checklists they wore on their spacesuit cuffs. "D.P." was known only to the two astronauts as "dual photo." Unbeknownst to NASA, the two had taken along a little store-bought timer for one of their cameras, and, as Conrad later told Jones, "We were going to put the camera on the stake and both of us were going to walk over to the Surveyor and have our picture taken. … We knew that PAO (Public Affairs Office) would put that photograph out before they'd put anything else out. Then somebody was going to ask the question 'Who took the picture?"' Unfortunately, the timer got buried under moon rocks in one of their sample collection bags, and they couldn't find it when the time came to take the picture, so the picture was never taken.
Conrad and Bean spent 7 hours and 45 minutes walking on the surface of the moon, in two separate excursions outside of their spacecraft. This was much longer than the little more than two hours that Armstrong and Aldrin had spent on their historic single moon walk.
Conrad's next trip into space was in 1973 aboard another Apollo ship, this time to the Skylab space station in low Earth orbit. This was America's first space station. Built from hardware left over from cancelled moon missions, it was launched without people aboard. Conrad was commander of the mission, the first to Skylab. His crewmates were Joseph Kerwin and Paul Weitz. Their first task was to repair the station since it had been damaged on launch. On a risky space walk, Conrad and Kerwin rescued the damaged station by manually pulling open a solar panel that had failed to deploy. The crew spent a record-breaking 28 days in space aboard the station.
Conrad retired from NASA and the Navy in 1973 after completion of his Skylab mission. He joined the McDonnell Douglas Corporation as an executive, where he served for 20 years. Early in the 1990s, Conrad led a McDonnell Douglas team that tested a scale model of the innovative single stage to orbit (SSTO) spacecraft called the Delta Clipper. Designed to take off and land on its tail like the science fiction rockets of old, the Delta Clipper sought to reduce launch costs with a fully reusable spacecraft built of very lightweight materials. That project was cancelled after a successful test flight of a 1/3 scale model, but before a working full-scale prototype was built.
In 1995, Conrad helped to found Universal Space Lines, a company committed to establishing profitable commercial space travel. As he testified at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing in 1998, "Our long-term company goal is to position ourselves as the world's premier provider of affordable commercial space transportation services, including purchase and operation of both expendable and reusable launch vehicles."
Conrad died on July 8, 1999 in Ojai, California, after losing control of the motorcycle he was riding on a winding highway. His wife, four sons, and seven grandchildren survived him. At the time of his death Conrad was 69 years old.
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