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Celebrating Apollo 12

The Apollo 12 landing site on the Moon
Click for the full resolution image.

Fifty years ago today Apollo 12 was launched, landing on the Moon several days later to become the second manned mission to land on another world.

To celebrate that achievement, let’s review a few of the mission’s high points. The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows that landing site, the lunar module Intrepid, the various tracks for the two moon-walks Pete Conrad and Alan Bean took, and the unmanned Surveyor-3 probe. The image was taken by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter late in 2011 and released to the public in 2012. To really see some detail you will look at the full resolution version by clicking on the image. Or you can explore the landing even more thoroughly at the original release site.

First, there was Pete Conrad’s point blank landing. They wanted to land close enough to Surveyor 3 so that the two astronauts would be able to walk over to it during a spacewalk. He did this perfectly, bringing Intrepid down only 600 feet away. They were thus able to recover the probe’s scoop, camera, television cable, and other assorted parts. Once back on Earth the big discovery was that a single bacterium, Streptococcus mitis, had survived the journey from Earth and was still alive upon its return. Scientists theorized its survival occurred because prior to launch it had been freeze-dried during prelaunch vacuum tests.

Second, there were Pete Conrads’s first words upon stepping off the lunar module. As the third man to walk on the Moon and also one of the shortest Apollo astronauts, he won a bet with a French reporter, who did not believe he had the freedom to say whatever he wanted as his first words, by saying, “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small step for Neal, but it’s a long one for me!”

Third, the astronauts installed the second seismometer on the Moon, which functioned for eight years.

Fourth, they brought back 75 pounds of material, which showed that while the Ocean of Storms was a mare lava field like the Sea of Tranquility, it had formed 500 million years more recently.

Fifth and most important, Apollo 12 proved that the Apollo 11 landing was not a fluke, that the engineering behind the Saturn 5 rocket, the Apollo capsule, and the lunar module, was sound. With courage and determination and a little clever re-engineering, those vehicles had been capable of taking humans anyway in the solar system. It is a shame we never took advantage of that possibility.

Hat tip to Mike Nelson for reminding me to post this.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • Garry

    I think you mean Pete Conrad rather than Alan Sheaerd, Shepard was Apollo 14.

  • Mike Murphy

    Pete Conrad commanded Apollo 12.

  • Ugh to all. I realized this error almost immediately after posting today and have corrected it.

    I really think my fingers are sometimes alien creatures, acting to sabotage me. :)

  • wayne

    “Set SCE to AUX”
    What Happened on board when Apollo 12 was struck by lightening…
    Vintage Space 2017

  • wayne

    What Does “Set SCE To AUX” Mean Anyway –
    Apollo 12’s Lightning Strike Explained
    Scott Manley 2019

    “It’s an often told story about Apollo 12 getting struck by lightning, crippling the command module in flight and John Aaron in mission control figuring out the exact switch to flip to fix the stricken vessel and save the day. It’s an understandably popular story, but the details are never quite right, so this is my attempt to explain what exactly went wrong and what problems SCE-to-AUX fixed.”

  • philip lee horner

    Something scared us off. No way you ground a working system that is a gateway product to exploit the resources of another world. Our war in Asia was over. It was fairly tranquil at home. What did the project in?

  • Edward

    philip lee horner asked: “Something scared us off. … What did the project in?

    NASA had planned on a follow on project called Apollo Applications Program.

    The problem is that Apollo was a government project. Governments are not in the exploration or science business outside of areas where these help with the fundamental mission of government. The reason why governments were invented is threefold:

    1) protect the people from all enemies, foreign and domestic,
    2) peaceably resolve disputes as a disinterested party, and
    3) staying out of the people’s way.

    None of the people who invented government wanted it to tell them how to live their lives. However, because so many people go to government for solutions to their individual problems, governments now believe that their purpose is to help the people live their lives, so they now believe that they have the duty to tell everyone how to live, like the relationship between parents and children. This violates Reason-for-Governments number three. The reason government should stay out of the people’s way is that every time it solves a problem for one person, it creates another problem for almost everyone else.

    Have you ever wondered why the world is so messed up? It is because governments “solve” problems.

    This is where FDR’s New Deal came from as well as LBJ’s Great Society. Because so man people ask government to solve their problems, governments think that We the People are mature enough to solve our own problems, so government solves them for us. Except that we have difficulties overcoming the bad solutions imposed by government in order to solve our own problems for ourselves. An example is American health care.

    No system is perfect, and America’s health care system is no exception. In its attempts to “solve” the imperfections in health care, government keeps making things worse and worse. Even the be-all end-all Obamacare was a complete disaster before it was completely implemented, so we are still discussing ways for government to impose more solutions. Free market capitalism in health care was not perfect, but it was much better than the mess that government made of it, even in 1992, when Hillary Clinton proposed a stupid solution to the government’s mess, and it was vastly superior to the disaster we are living through now.

    Although it looks like I drifted from the topic, this fits in with the answer because Apollo did little to tell people how to live their lives, or to protect the people from any enemies, or to resolve disputes. Money that the New Deal and the Great Society could have been redistributing to people (and buying votes) was instead being used to explore places where there were not (yet) people, and what is the good of that?

    NASA saw the problem with its Congressional master’s attitude and began emphasizing the spin-offs that come from NASA’s exploration and innovation. These spin-offs have been of great help to the people, but government sees little benefit to this help, as it is almost always used by companies to help people, not used by the government, so the government does not get the accolades (and politicians don’t get the votes) that they think they deserve.

    So, why did Apollo happen at all? Because the United States needed desperately to tell the world that is was still a country that no one should mess with, that we were still as strong as during WWII, and that countries would be better off allying themselves with us rather than the Soviet Union or China. It was a way to tell the world that free market capitalism (distributed control) is better than socialism (centralized control). This follows Reason-for-Governments number one.

    NASA continues to exist because it is the American government’s way of showing the world that we are still the technological leader. Because it is used this way, many other countries have started their own space programs in order to say, “we have technological competence, too.” China is even trying to take away our leadership in space.

    Previously, Robert has noted the irony that the United States chose to use centralized control, through NASA, to prove that free market capitalism is the better system. Unfortunately, the U.S. government got a swelled head (and what “Great Society’s” government wouldn’t?) and kept the centralized control for space exploration and use for half a century. These days, however, the government is releasing some amount of control back to free market capitalized commercial space companies, and several of these companies are kicking the government’s butt, where space is concerned.

    Profit is free market capitalism’s reward for increased efficiency. Socialism sees efficiency as a threat to full employment and stifles efficiency. This is why SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is so much more efficient than NASA’s SLS.

  • Edward

    Sorry for the bad sentence (how embarrassing). It should read:

    “Because so many people ask government to solve their problems, governments think that We the People are not mature enough to solve our own problems, so government solves them for us.

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