Apollo 12: the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Second Lunar Landing – a story of serial bad luck, a serious mistake and unexplained saliva

Who remembers Apollo 12? It should have been the flight that gave the American public a television spectacular that knocked spots off the short Apollo 11 moonwalk.

The first moon landing was basically a PR exercise: the moonwalk was the shortest possible and science was almost an afterthought. The Apollo 11 landing was to give the Press and the politicians their moment in the limelight, with minimal scientific content to the lunar surface work. Given that just ten minutes were reserved for instrument set-up on the Moon, Apollo 11’s only instruments were a seismometer, a reflector for laser ranging and a simple, aluminium sheet to collect solar wind; in contrast, Apollo 12 carried no fewer than six sophisticated scientific instruments, plus a radio isotope thermo-electric generator to power them. In contrast to the ten minutes for the Apollo 11 instrument deployment, the Apollo 12 package took a full two hours to deploy.

We can judge how high a priority was given to collecting moon rock from an exchange near the end of the moonwalk. Before Neil Armstrong left the lunar surface, Capcom had told him that “any samples that you can grab would be appreciated” and Armstrong responded later by saying that he estimated that he had “thrown about 20 pounds (9kg) of carefully selected, but not documented rocks into the box”. Later, it would be found that the contingency sample that Armstrong had grabbed quickly after leaving the Lunar Module in case they had had to abort the moonwalk, was so contaminated with rocket exhaust that it was of limited value.

In contrast, PR done, Apollo 12 was the first mission that would dedicate itself to science. The astronauts made two moonwalks of 3h56m and of 3h49m respectively, both far longer than the 2h31m duration of the Apollo 11 moonwalk. They deployed a full lunar science station in the first moonwalk and went exploring on the second. They carried a colour TV camera to broadcast the moonwalks and sent back images that far surpassed the fuzzy, ghosted images of Apollo 11. And, Pete Conrad’s landing was so pinpoint that not only did they have amazing views of the interior of a medium-sized crater, but were able to walk easily to the Surveyor 3 spacecraft on the other side of the crater wall.

Apollo 12 was possibly the unluckiest of the Apollo moonflights. Originally intended to be the first Moon landing, it had lost that distinction to Apollo 11 earlier in 1969, when the flight schedule was accelerated. In October 1967, two years before launch, it had lost its original Lunar Module Pilot when Clifton Williams had been killed in a plane crash. On launch, it was hit twice by lightning and lost all its electrical systems: on the point of aborting, the mission was saved by twenty-five-year -old controller, John Aaron, the Apollo 12 Gold Team EECOM, who remembered a similar problem from a simulation and its solution.  Aaron famously called “Flight, EECOM. Try SCE to Aux”. Fortunately, the one other person who understood this command was Al Bean, who recalled that the switch was in front of him and threw it, re-setting the circuit and thus restoring power and telemetry. Later, on splashdown, a camera dislodged and fell on Al Bean, leaving him unconscious and concussed, with a gash on his forehead that needed six stitches (the only significant injury suffered by any Apollo astronaut). The worst piece of luck to befall the mission, though, came on the lunar surface.

So, why does no one remember the Apollo 12 moonwalk?

There were many reasons. For one thing, there was the inevitable sense of “been there, done that, got the rocks”. Apollo 12 did not have the tension of a first lunar landing attempt. For that reason, NASA had added novelties like the colour TV camera (Apollo 11 had carried a camera on board, but the lunar TV camera was black and white) and the spectacular landing site, on the rim of a crater, close to the Surveyor 3 probe. The idea was to keep the public’s interest with much more spectacular pictures from the surface of the Moon.

A second issue was that the lunar landing occurred in mid-week in November, at a rather anti-social hour. The landing was at 06:54am, London time on Wednesday 19th: almost 2am on the east coast of the United States and late night even on the west coast. I well remember how disgruntled my father was to have to get out of bed at 6am to switch on the TV for me (I believe that that the BBC finally started its coverage at 06:30). Most people were more concerned with getting some sleep before work than with seeing the second lunar landing attempt.

These are two TV stills from the official NASA transcript of the mission that show, despite the fact that it is a capture from a re-constructed colour TV image, with a lot of contrast, how much better the image quality is than the fuzzy Apollo 11 pictures. The lunar surface is clearly visible reflected in the visor of Pete Conrad.

The killer, though, was the disastrous start to the moonwalk. Pete Conrad stepped – or rather, jumped – onto the Moon at 11:44am, London time, quarter to seven in the morning on the east coast of the United States. Initially, all went well. The TV pictures were far clearer than those from Apollo 11. Then came the moment when Al Bean had to move the TV camera from its position on the Lunar Module leg, to a place away from the Lunar Module to allow panoramic shots of the astronauts setting up the science package. It was a seemingly trivial item that had been carried out on Apollo 11 by Neil Armstrong. We hear this exchange between Lunar Module Pilot, Al Bean, Mission Commander, Pete Conrad and Capcom, Edward Gifford, who was also part of the Apollo 12 support crew, starting 32m05s after Conrad jumped off the ladder onto the footpad and then onto the lunar surface[1]:

115:58:21 Bean: Okay, Houston; I’m going to move the TV camera now.

115:58:24 Gibson: Roger, Al.

115:58:28 Bean: Hey, it’s real nice moving around up here. You don’t seem to get tired. You really hop like a bunny.

115:58:36 Conrad: Where, oh where, is Earth? There it is. (Pause)

115:58:41 Bean: Here is the TV. And it’s pointing toward the Sun. That’s bad. Point it here a minute.

115:58:47 Conrad: Dum dee dum, dum dum dum.

115:58:48 Bean: (Garbled)

115:58:51 Conrad: Dum dee dee dum dum. (Pause) There’s that. (Having thrown something, probably either the carry bar or the rib protector) Look at that go. (Laughs) (Pause)

115:59:26 Bean: Hey, Ed; I was going to deploy this 20 feet at 10 (o’clock) but, because of the Sun being where it is, we’re going to have to deploy it a little bit more toward the 2 o’clock position. I think that will be okay, though. That will give you a good shot; right in here. I’ll see if I can keep the Sun from getting in the camera at all.

RealVideo Clip (3 min 04 sec). This clip is also available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UtBMAMO11e8)

115:59:45 Gibson: Al, we have a pretty bright image on the TV; … (TV still)

It is fair to say that there was a degree of light-heartedness about the all-navy crew, with Pete Conrad challenged only by Charlie Duke (another Navy man) for NASA’s informal title of “most playful moonwalker”. Suffice it to say that Al Bean failed to pay sufficient attention to the rather cryptic note in his checklist for positioning the camera, which said “omit up-Sun”.

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The moment that Al Bean pointed the TV camera at the Sun. The top part of the vidicon tube was fatally damaged.

 

 

TV viewers saw a blaze of light on their screens as Bean pointed the camera straight at the Sun and that was the last of the TV coverage of the moonwalks. The video tube inside the camera was burnt out and, about fifty seconds later, Bean compounded the error by pointing the camera at the Sun a second time and doing further, fatal damage.

During the 1969 mission debrief, Al Bean commented that he thought that the damage had occurred by pointing the camera at the reflected Sun in the Lunar Module and went on to say that he had never been given any real instruction in using the camera, nor had he even seen it until the moonwalk itself. In a later, 1991 mission review, he stated:

[Bean – “I don’t know. The thing I remember is that I wasn’t worried about pointing it at the Sun. It didn’t seem to be a big deal.”]

To which, Pete Conrad replied:

[Conrad – “We were never told it was a big deal.”]

This version, though, seems to be contradicted by Al Bean’s own comment on the Lunar surface:

Bean: Here is the TV. And it’s pointing toward the Sun. That’s bad. Point it here a minute.

When shown his remarks in the official transcript, that indicate that he was well aware of his error at the time, and then his justification in the mission de-brief, he was brutally honest with himself:

[Bean – ” (Reading) ‘At least that’s my guess as to what occurred….because I had personally never done a lot of serious thinking…’ That’s stupid; I should have (thought about it). That’s a dumb statement and it shows that I wasn’t doing my job. What it sounds like (in the tech debrief) is rationalization. I’m back and feeling guilty and trying to think of reasons that I burned it out. (Reading) ‘But I guess I should have been aware of the possibility before I went.

Despite these comments from Al Bean that suggested that no one had warned them of the camera’s sensitivity, there was an explicit statement from Neil Armstrong while deploying the Apollo 11 camera about being careful not to point the camera at the Sun.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, there is no doubt that the training that the astronauts had received in the use of the camera was highly deficient (unlike the Apollo 11 crew, who had trained with a camera on a tripod, the Apollo 12 crew remembered that had simulated it with a wooden block), but the crew attitude may have been deficient too, playing too much to the watching public on Earth and trying too hard to put on a good show and, in consequence, making avoidable mistakes.

At the time, I was a space-mad nine-year-old, who had just moved up to Miss Stinchcombe’s, Class 3 at Hambrook County Primary. Lessons that morning were interrupted so that my class and Mrs Elliot’s, Class 4, could go down to the projection room and watch the television coverage.  Looking back, I can only wonder with gratitude at my teachers, who were willing to accommodate my passion for space to the extent that, after the Apollo 11 all-nighter, I was told that if I fancied resting my head on the desk and sleeping in class, that would not be an issue (I was far too wide awake and excited to accept) and who then cancelled classes before lunch that day in November so that I could watch the first moonwalk of Apollo 12.

Of course, Al Bean’s mishap with the camera meant that after half an hour, the broadcast was reduced to sound only, as the astronauts and Mission Control tried desperately to get the TV picture back. Millions of people around the world experienced the frustration of only being able to follow the set-up of the ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package) by radio and, switched off. With the Apollo 13 explosion and the cancellation of the landing and the delay in the launch of Apollo 14, it would be nearly fifteen months before the American public would see, once again, astronauts walking on the Moon: by then, sadly, the novelty had worn off and the magic would not return.

For the second moonwalk, which started at 03:55UT on November 20th, between NASA’s excellent planning and Pete Conrad’s perfect, pinpoint landing, there should have been a real treat for the TV audience. Conrad had set the Lunar Module down right on the north-west ramparts of a crater about 130 metres in diameter that was nicknamed “Surveyor Crater” because, eighteen months earlier, Surveyor 3 had landed just inside the south-east crater wall.

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Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imaging of the Apollo 12 landing site in Oceanus Procellarum (the Ocean of Storms), close to the crater Flamsteed. We can see with exquisite detail the footsteps of the astronauts, initially heading out, back and forth north-west from the Lunar Module, Intrepid, setting up the ALSEP package and then, in the second moonwalk, heading west around the rim of Head Crater, turning south to Bench Crater before a short detour west to Sharp Crater, before heading east, past Bench Crater again, towards Surveyor Crater and on to the Surveyor 3 craft, where they cut off samples before returning to the Lunar Module.

A further camera test before the second moonwalk showed the same ultra-high contrast pattern of black and white that demonstrated that the camera was fatally damaged and useless.

The 180 metre walk around the crater between Surveyor 3 and the Lunar Module produced some stunning images that, sadly, the public was not to see until after the astronauts had returned to Earth. In their desperation, one American TV station turned to using marionettes to reproduce the second moonwalk, with a mock lunar surface set and puppeteers high above pulling their strings to give the network something visual to show. Others moved astronaut dolls around a reproduction of the lunar surface.

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Shadows half-filling Surveyor crater on the day of landing, taken from close to the Lunar Module. By the time of the second moonwalk, these shadows had all but disappeared. The double crater visible in the far wall of the crater is the double crater on the southern ramparts of Surveyor Crater, each of which is about 10 metres diameter. The small crater in the foreground is about 50 metres south-southeast of Intrepid, down inside Surveyor Crater.

as12-48-7091HR

Approaching Surveyor Crater and Surveyor 3 from the south. Lunar Module, Intrepid, is clearly visible across the crater, as is the parabolic, umbrella antenna behind it and the flag, slightly in front and to the right.

as12-48-7133HR Al Bean’s photograph of Pete Conrad examining the Surveyor 3 lander, taken twenty minutes after the previous image. Again, we see clearly Intrepid, the umbrella antenna and the flag above his head.

A key objective of the moonwalk was to examine the Surveyor 3 craft to see how well it had survived exposure to the extreme conditions of the lunar surface and to retrieve samples for examination on Earth. The astronauts reported that the white paint of the probe had been burnt brown by exposure to solar ultraviolet and the extremes of temperature between day and night. The camera was cut free and returned to Earth, although the astronauts were unable to retrieve the sample of camera glass that the engineers back on Earth were keen to study.

However, possibly the most significant result of Apollo 12 is one of the least known. Prior to launch, the Surveyor 3 craft was decontaminated in an attempt to avoid contamination of the lunar surface by terrestrial organisms. Previously, NASA had attempted to sterilise landers or impactors but, by Surveyor 3, these precautions had been relaxed and it was accepted that some, low-level contamination, might remain, but that there was no danger than it would spread away from the lander. When returned to Earth, living bacteria were found in the Styrofoam insulation between two circuit boards of the camera.

The organisms were identified as “alpha hemolytic Streptococcus mitis”. This is a bacterium commonly found in human saliva. What it was doing in the camera has never been explained and some NASA experts believe that the bacteria arrived as contamination back on Earth: either way, we will never know their origin now[2].

Technically, Apollo 12 was a tremendous triumph. It showed that the astronauts were capable of the pinpoint landings that would be necessary later to access some of the most scientifically interesting, but difficult landing sites. It set up the first real lunar science station. The astronauts were able to walk significant distances – the second moonwalk covered a circuit of 1.3 km – without difficulty, including the slopes of Surveyor crater’s walls, allowing later missions to do more ambitious geology traverses. It also was the first to carry out impact science: the use of the upper stage of the Lunar Module and/or Saturn IVb Third Stage to impact deliberately on the Moon and set up artificial moonquakes to study the lunar interior. However, the mission will be best remembered, unkindly, as the one that killed the Moon landings as a television spectacle.

[1] This is taken from the official NASA mission transcript: https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a12/a12.tvtrbls.html. The timings are Mission Elapsed Time, since launch. For reference, Pete Conrad jumped off the Lunar Module (then still called “LEM” by the astronauts) ladder onto the footpad at 115:26:16 and onto the lunar surface at 115:26:24 (11:44:22UT on November 19th 1969).

[2] What saliva was doing on insulation in a camera that was prepared in an ultra-clean environment before its launch, or on returned samples from the Moon that were similarly kept in totally sterile conditions, is hard to understand. One of the few places where contamination could plausibly have happened was on board the Apollo capsule.

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