Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"If you can't be good, be colorful"

Charles "Pete" Conrad, astronaut extraordinaire, would have been 79 years old today. The title of today's blog was Pete's personal motto. He was nothing if not colorful -- and he was very good, too.

I first heard of Pete when he flew Gemini V with Gordon Cooper in August 1965. Gemini V had an ambitious goal of "eight days or bust" in Earth orbit. That mission, the equivalent time for a trip to the Moon and back, nearly doubled the cumulative total of America's total time in space to date. Pete later commanded the Gemini XI mission with Dick Gordon as Pilot.

Pete and Dick flew together on Apollo 12, joined by Alan Bean. They had the most harrowing launch of the Apollo program, when their Saturn V was struck by lightning just after liftoff. The lightning strike scrambled all of the Apollo capsule's instruments. Luckily, the rocket - which was still accelerating - had its own guidance system which was unaffected by the power surge. Conrad had nerves of steel and was not about to abort the mission unless things became hopeless. A quick-thinking technician in Mission Control suggested a fix that enabled the mission to continue. I remember watching the liftoff from a small TV in my 8th grade shop (industrial arts) class when I was in middle school. I couldn't believe they let the mission continue after that lightning strike!

Pete flew his Lunar Module Intrepid to a pinpoint landing 3 days later. Pete's first words upon becoming the third man to walk on the Moon were, "Whoopee!! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that was a long one for me!" We were disappointed that the Apollo TV picture tube burned out, but I enjoyed listening to the audio broadcast of both moonwalks nonetheless. Pete's and Al's descriptions were very vivid ("colorful" comes back to mind again as the perfect word), and they seemed to be having an incredibly good time as they went about their tasks. I dearly wished I could have seen them working at the Surveyor 3 lander in the last half of their second spacewalk.

Pete's outstanding work as commander of the first Skylab crew was noted in my post last week. After retiring from NASA in 1973, Pete worked for several NASA contractors, including McDonnell Douglas and Martin Marietta. At Martin, Pete was a consultant on the "Large Space Telescope" project, which eventually became known as The Hubble Space Telescope.

Pete was motorcycling with friends in Ojai, California, in July 1999 when his motorcycle skidded off the road. He seemed to be fine after the crash, but he died of internal bleeding 6 hours later. His death was a real shock to all of us who had followed his exploits over the years. I deeply regret that I never had a chance to meet him and thank him for all the good times he gave me.

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