Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr.
The intense training and pressure-filled working conditions of an astronaut are tough, tedious, and extremely stressful. Charles Conrad, Jr. used his sense of humor to help him endure these obstacles and achieve success. Four months after Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon and uttered his famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Conrad, armed with his own commentary, walked on the moon himself. Seconds after his boot imprinted the barren lunar dust, Conrad, who was the shortest astronaut at the time, said, “That may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”
- Pilot of Gemini 5 in 1965, which made 120 orbits around the earth and set an endurance record of 191 hours in space, ultimately proving humans could stay in space long enough to make it to the moon.
- Commanded Gemini 11 in 1966 Conrad caught and linked up with an Agena satellite, using the Agena engine to rocket to a then-record altitude of 850 miles.
- Commanded Apollo 12 in November 1969 and was the third person to walk on the moon.
- May 1973, Conrad and crew aboard Skylab II, the orbiting workshop, rendezvous with Skylab I, administering repairs to the damaged craft and conducting experiments in space.
- Served as consultant for the Hubble Space Telescope.
Charles Conrad, Jr.’s career in space began when he was among the hundreds of disappointed applicants after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration selected seven test pilots in 1958 for astronaut training for its “Project Mercury” manned space program. Success in Project Mercury arrived quickly. It included Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight as the first American in space, and Glenn’s orbiting of the Earth in his Friendship 7 spacecraft.
When NASA announced “Project Gemini” in 1962, using a two-man spacecraft, Conrad was among the selectees. Before long he began an intense training program, including jungle survival courses in Panama, trips to geological areas similar to the moon, training in water egress from spacecraft, countless hours in flight simulators, and endless physicals. No room for error exists in space. Conrad encountered his first challenge as pilot of Gemini-5, accompanied by astronaut L. Gordon Cooper. During this mission, man’s first extended space flight, everything went according to plan as the astronauts were launched into orbit.
Once aloft, they used the first fuel cells to generate electric power in space, test the radar guidance systems, and take remarkable photographs of areas such as the Salton Sea. After orbiting the Earth for eight days, they splashed down in the Atlantic and rejoiced in their accomplishment of having demonstrated human beings’ ability to stay in space long enough to fly to the moon and back. For his next mission, Conrad served as backup commander of Gemini-8, during which Armstrong and Scott achieved the first docking of two spacecraft.
As the successful missions continued, Conrad served as commander of Gemini-11, launched into earth orbit with astronaut Richard Gordon in 1966. After they docked with an Agena target vehicle, Gordon spent two periods outside the spacecraft. During one, he sat astride the nose of Gemini-11 and connected it to the Agena with a rope, while Pete shouted: “Ride ‘em cowboy!” in encouragement. Later, the spacecraft flew in tethered arrangement, while Conrad used thruster rockets to slowly rotate them and produce the first artificial gravity in space. On this mission, the astronauts obtained spectacular photos of Arabia and India and beyond, before splashing down in the Atlantic. After President Kennedy declared that the nation should commit itself to landing a man on the moon before the decade finished, NASA announced its Apollo lunar landing project.
In 1968, the first 3-man Apollo crew reached and orbited the moon in Apollo-8 and see the Earth as a “big blue marble.” Then, Conrad served as backup commander of the Apollo-9 mission during which separation and redocking of the lunar module is achieved. Finally, a historic moment followed after Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were launched in Apollo-11, and Neil guided its lunar module to a safe landing. As he first stepped upon the moon, Armstrong uttered his famous line: “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind!”
Following this success, Conrad received a promotion to commander of Apollo-12 to make the second moon landing, along with astronauts Bean and Gordon, an all-Navy crew. He worked diligently in the lunar module mission simulator and became proficient with the lunar landing trainer. This training left few precious moments to spend with his family. He practiced water egress in the Gulf of Mexico, the use of lunar equipment in Arizona, simulated extravehicular activities at the Kennedy Space Center, and exiting from the lunar module until he was prepared to try for the moon. During its spectacular launch through a rain squall in November 1969, the Apollo-12 was struck twice by lightning. Fortunately, it continued its ascent and assumed proper orbit.
After being inserted into a trajectory to assure a moon landing under good visibility conditions, the gravity of the moon captured the craft. Then Conrad separated the lunar module Intrepid from the command module Yankee Clipper on the tenth orbit and brought it to a precise landing on the “Ocean of Storms”. When Conrad descended the ladder, he became the third man on the moon, and Bean soon joined him there.
After collecting a contingency sample of rocks, they positioned the radio antenna, set up the solar wind experiment, and erected an American flag. Then they deployed instruments for recording moon quakes, measuring solar radiation and detecting lunar atmosphere and dust. Later, they inspected the unmanned surveyor-3 spacecraft, which had previously landed on the moon, and removed its television camera and other parts for scientific study on earth.
Meanwhile, Conrad received the dubious honor of being the first man to fall upon the moon. But when Bean helped him up, he assured mission control: “It’s no big deal.” After 31 hours 31 minutes on the lunar surface, Conrad and Bean blasted off and caught Gordon orbiting overhead. After they transferred to the command module, the lunar module was jettisoned back on to the moon.
On the long journey home, the astronauts held the first space news conference, responding to questions from listeners on earth. Then Conrad brought the mission to a successful conclusion with the splashdown in the Pacific near Samoa. After being picked up by helicopter, the astronauts entered the quarantine facility aboard the carrier Hornet, where they received a congratulatory call from President Nixon.
During the final Apollo-17 mission, astronauts left a plaque on the moon reading: “Here man completed his first exploration of the moon, December 1972. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.” After the mission NASA moved to launch an orbiting workshop called Skylab, to study the sun and earth from space. The laboratory was to be visited by three separate crews.
In 1972, NASA announced the Skylab 2 crew would be astronauts Kerwin and Weitz, with “Pete” Conrad as commander. Their specialized training includes operation of the Apollo telescope, and how to perform experiments in space. Unfortunately, after the fully provisioned Skylab launched into Earth orbit, in May 1973, its orbital workshop thermal shield was discovered to have broken loose and ripped away one of its electric power generating solar panels and jammed another partly open. When the workshop’s temperature soared, NASA postponed Conrad’s mission until his crew could be equipped to carry out repairs in space. When Skylab 2 was finally launched, it overtook the crippled Skylab 1. After visually assessing the damage, Conrad moved in close, while Weitz unsuccessfully attempted to release the jammed panel. A major crisis arose when Conrad attempted unsuccessfully six times to dock with Skylab 1. In desperation, the astronauts donned their space suits and checked the docking probe. Suddenly the culprit, a loose nut, flew off into space and Conrad finally docked at the last possible moment. When Conrad and Weitz entered the hot workshop, they forced a makeshift sun shield through an airlock and released it to open against the exterior of the spacecraft. Almost immediately, the temperature dropped.
At this point Conrad and his crew activated the workshop and used the array of telescopes to observe solar flares and the earth and transmit their pictures to earth, marking a new era in astronomy. When NASA became very concerned about Skylab’s electric power, Conrad and Kerwin again endeavoured to release the jammed panel. First, Pete tried to cut away the remains of the heat shield. When this failed, he fastened a rope to the panel and used his body to exert force. Suddenly the panel swung out and snapped in place. Within minutes, ample electric power began to flow. Now Conrad and his crew focused on their space assignments, working with molten metals and conducting medical experiments. But there were also lighter moments, such as eating meals, taking refreshing showers, and even cutting each other’s hair. When their 28-day mission came to an end, Conrad and his crew separated their command module from Skylab 1 and made a safe return to earth. In their prolonged stay in space, the astronauts suffered no lasting ill effects, as they also successfully demonstrated man’s remarkable ingenuity in overcoming difficulties. After their return, the astronauts presented President Nixon and Russia’s Premier Brezhnev with plaques commemorating the Skylab mission, which had proven that man can now reach the planets.
As Conrad’s twenty year career with the United States Navy came to an end, it also brought to a close his fabulous eleven year career as an astronaut. During man’s first venture into space, Charles Conrad, Jr., made four flights, and spent nearly 1200 hours in space, of which almost 32 were on the moon. His, indeed, has been a career full of outstanding contributions to aviation and space technology, a career that earns him his special place in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Charles Conrad, Jr. died July 8th, 1999.
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