Seeing Apollo 12

Posted on Wed, November 19, 2014

On November 19, 1969, 45 years ago and three short months after the landing of Apollo 11, Commander Charles “Pete” Conrad and Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean landed their lunar module “Intrepid” on the Ocean of Storms, just walking distance from the Surveyor III spacecraft. Their near pinpoint landing showed that Moon landings could continue, and with such accuracy that specific objects could be targeted for research. Conrad and Bean proceeded to spend a day and a half including two extra-vehicular walks on the surface retrieving rock and soil samples, taking photographs, and detaching a piece of Surveyor III to return to Earth. What few expected is that no more than the first few moments of the mission would be seen live back on Earth.

Charles Conrad Jr. examines Surveyor III (3)

In November 1969, Charles Conrad Jr., Apollo 12 Commander, examines the unmanned Surveyor III spacecraft, which soft-landed on the Moon on April 20, 1967.

The Apollo 11 mission set an expectation for how our proxies in space, the astronauts trained to fly to the Moon, would show us their accomplishments, experiences, and work. Unfortunately, relocating the television camera to a stand away from the lunar module presented an unconsidered problem. By accident, Bean tilted the lens towards the Sun, damaging the optical components of the camera. It became unusable. Instead, their handy Hasselblad cameras and the 16mm movie camera in the lunar module were all that remained to record their experience visually. Following the mission, Bean developed his experiences and impression into an incredible series of paintings that evoke some of those lost moments not seen on television.

<em>Home Sweet Home</em> by Alan Bean

Home Sweet Home, Alan Bean, 1983, acrylic on masonite.

The public reaction to the loss of television coverage is largely anecdotal. Television viewing of Apollo missions declined without mission coverage, only to spike again during the program when Apollo 13 was known to have mechanical problems in April 1970. One particularly bothered citizen wrote to NASA on November 25, 1969, the day after the mission landed back on Earth, to complain that the loss of the television disturbed him. He felt the visual impact and value for the public was lost, and that the cavalier attitude he perceived from audio transmissions from Commander Conrad were inappropriate. The Missourian wrote that, “Astronaut Conrad gives the impression that he is on a joyride of no significance whatsoever.” In hopes of easing the apparent frustration of the writer, George Abbey - then assistant to the director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (later renamed the Johnson Space Center) - sent the gentleman copies of Apollo 12 photographs and assurance that corrections to the camera problem would be in place before the Apollo 13 mission. As for the attitudes of the astronauts, Abbey could only promise that the astronauts took their jobs quite seriously, and some enthusiasm should be expected. So while the world missed out on seeing live coverage of “history in the making” as Abbey called it in his response letter, crew photography and unique perspectives offered by Bean’s later artwork give some comfort that even 45 years on, we know just what Conrad and Bean saw in their 34 hours on the Moon. 

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