Our Spaceflight Heritage: The shocking launch of Apollo 12
On Nov. 14, 1969, at 11:22 a.m. EST (15:22 GMT), at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the second manned Moon landing mission launched. The gigantic, 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket boosted a tiny, three-man capsule carrying Commander Pete Conrad, Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon, and Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean on the adventure of a lifetime. Little did the three astronauts suspect that the launch itself would be one of the most extraordinary moments of the mission.
Apollo 12 was a follow-up to the successful Moon landing in July of that year, in which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the lunar surface. Although Apollo 11 was a success, Neil Armstrong was unable to land his lunar module, Eagle, at the planned landing site on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility.
Because of excess air expelled from the airlock when Eagle separated from the command module, Columbia, and because Armstrong found himself flying over dangerous, rocky terrain, he landed Eagle more than three miles from the planned landing site.
One of the many goals of the Apollo 12 mission was to make a precision landing—specifically at the Surveyor Crater in the Ocean of Storms where the robotic Surveyor III spacecraft had landed in 1967. But in order to make a precision landing on the Moon, Apollo 12 first had to make a successful launch from Earth.
It was a stormy morning along what was becoming, at that time, Florida’s Space Coast. In those days, the launch tower was not capped with a lightning rod, as it would be for the later space shuttle flights. Further, the weather was not considered a hindrance for launch. About 36 seconds into the flight, the mission of Apollo 12 turned perilous.
There was a brilliant flash of light and a jolt. Suddenly the spacecraft had lost “a whole bunch of stuff”. Even as the three astronauts tried to figure out why their buses had dropped out, a second flash knocked out everything.
“We had a whole bunch of buses drop out,” Conrad told Capsule Communicator (CapCom) Jerry Carr.
“Okay, we just lost the platform, gang,” Conrad said a half minute later. “I don’t know what happened here; we had everything in the world drop out.”
“I can’t—”, Gordon said, “There’s nothing I can tell is wrong, Pete.”
“I got three fuel cell lights,” Conrad continued, “an AC bus light, a fuel cell disconnect, AC bus overload 1 and 2, Main Bus A and B out.”
The main bus read 24 volts, which was very low. A little over a minute into the flight, Apollo 12 was already in serious trouble.
As soon as Apollo 12 had cleared the tower, control had shifted from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Control to Mission Control in Houston. It was Flight Director Gerry Griffin’s first stint as head flight director, and he was already faced with an emergency.
At the moment, the spacecraft’s telemetry was coming through as gibberish. Fortunately, the Electrical, Environmental, and Consumables Manager (EECOM) was a brilliant young engineer named John Aaron (who would later be instrumental in saving the ill-fated Apollo 13 and would go on to become the manager of the International Space Station in Houston).
He suggested switching SCE to Auxiliary. SCE was the Signal Conditioning Equipment, a piece of hardware that converted the spacecraft’s instrument signals into the correct format for transmission to the ground so that the Mission Control computers could read them. Aaron believed that switching the SCE to auxiliary would bring the equipment back online, and mission controllers could accurately read the spacecraft telemetry.
“FCE to Aux?” Conrad asked. “What the hell is that?”
“SCE, SCE to auxiliary,” Carr repeated.
Conrad had never heard of that command—neither had most of the people at Mission Control. Fortunately, Bean had. He hit the correct switch and, instantly, the power came back on, computer systems began rebooting, and telemetry was restored.
Griffin took staging status. Conrad signaled that the inboard engine of the first stage had shut down as scheduled. At two minutes and nineteen seconds into the flight, Carr instructed Conrad to reset the fuel cells.
Apollo 12 staged properly and reached orbit, at which point Conrad correctly diagnosed the problem.
“I don’t know what happened. I’m not sure we didn’t get hit by lightning,” Conrad said.
In fact, the spacecraft had been struck not once, but twice—once at 36.5 seconds, and again 16 seconds later. The bolt of lightning had not only struck the spacecraft, but traveled down the length of the rocket and all the way down the exhaust plume, and struck the launch pad.
“I think we need to do a little more all-weather testing,” Conrad joked as the emergency began to subside. But, in fact, mission rules would be rewritten so that never again would a rocket launch into such dangerous conditions.
Although it was unknown at that time whether the lightning strikes had damaged the spacecraft, the decision was made to proceed with the mission anyway. Three days later, the lunar module, Intrepid, made a precision landing—so close to the Surveyor III spacecraft that Conrad could see it when he stepped out onto the porch.
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.