Apollo 12 the Real Unlucky Number?

Apollo 12 crew of (left to right) Conrad, Gordon, and Bean, Photo by NASA

Amidst a Sea of Storms (Oceanus Procellarum) the Apollo XII lunar module lander, Intrepid, landed on the Moon with nearly pin-point accuracy on November 19, 1969, some fifty years ago. Commander Charles “Pete” Conrad and Lunar Module pilot, Alan Bean landed about 600 feet from the unmanned Surveyor III probe, as Command Module pilot, Dick Gordon, orbited above in the Command Module spacecraft dubbed the Yankee Clipper.

The probe had been inert on the Moon for two and a half years, so there was great curiosity about the condition of the lander. The probe would have endured extreme temperature changes and possible micrometeorite impacts in the lunar environment, and subatomic bombardment by solar wind. This was the first time an unmanned probe was visited by humans on an alien world.

Bean and Conrad approached the craft and found its white paint turned yellowish brown and the glass panels broken.  There was no significant meteoroid damage found on the craft; then certain parts were removed and brought back to Earth. The lunar duo unwittingly would be the first to find “life” on the Moon, but ironically it would be of the terrestrial kind. Thirty-three swabs were taken from the TV camera back on Earth and introduced into a solution that revealed a growth of earthly bacteria. That something living could survive 950 days in such a hostile environment as the Moon’s is, to say the least, astonishing!

The crew and the Apollo-Saturn V spacecraft had been victims of a couple calamities and near-disasters that could have crippled the mission and the Apollo program itself. One spacecraft was struck by lightning twice during their launch from Florida. The lightning strikes knocked out some equipment and spacecraft began to lose power. An electrical engineer/manager named John Aaron, designation: EECOM, remembered the failure pattern from a previous flight simulation and made the call to the flight director: “Flight, EECOM. Try SCE to Aux.” Luckily for the crew and Mission Control, Alan Bean remembered the SCE switch, putting the spacecraft on backup power supply, restoring telemetry and saving the mission. Aaron’s quick thinking earned him the reputation of “steely-eyed missile man.”

It was feared that the lightning strike had caused the explosive bolts to fire prematurely in the parachute compartment, rendering them useless, making safe return impossible. The decision was made not to tell the astronauts, since there was little that could be done. Fortunately, the parachutes deployed and functioned normally at the end of the mission.[1]

Apollo XII’s Intrepid, having landed near Surveyor III, provided an opportunity for direct comparison of a human viewpoint with that of a machine. But there was little comparison to be had, and Bean, having accidentally pointed the color camera to the Sun in this instance, had not helped. Unlike the monochrome camera of Apollo XI, the color camera, damaged beyond repair, would have made television viewing of more interest to audiences.

Needless to say, live television space coverage by the networks for the most part had been canceled, the landing site had to be a stage set and the lunar crews’ activities had to be performed by actor-astronauts. This may have planted a seed for the cynics who say we never made it to the Moon and back. Director Peter Hyams of Capricorn One movie fame[2] indicated that this mission gave him the idea that a moon landing could be faked, but he never felt that NASA or any other government agency actually faked a Moon landing.

For most, the Moon had become boring at this juncture, possibly too humdrum for anyone other than the scientists and the astronauts. Public interest in the second manned Apollo Moon mission waned dramatically as compared to the first manned Moon landing that previous July. Despite a series of mishaps, the crew of Twelve had a successful mission, but would it now take an Unlucky Number to revive interest back in to the Apollo missions and lunar exploration? To be continued …

Sources: Duncan Lunan (1979). “New Worlds for Old.“, New York: Morrow. ISBN 0-688-03486-1


Cimino, Al (2019). “Apollo: the mission to land a man on the Moon, p. 150. ISBN 9780785837039


[1] Cimino, Al (May 14, 2019). “Apollo: the mission to land a man on the Moon “

[2] Capricorn One is a 1978 thriller film that narrates a government hoax created to deceive the public on a supposed Mars landing. Written and directed by Peter Hyams, it stars Elliott Gould, with James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and O.J. Simpson as the three astronauts.