We all remember who in 1492 sailed the ocean blue, but how many of us can name the second captain after Christopher Columbus to lead a trans-Atlantic voyage? (Another Italian, John Cabot, who sailed in the service of England.)
We still honor Charles Lindbergh as the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, even if he was discredited by the racist politics he advocated later on. But who can name the second person to make a solo transatlantic flight? (Amelia Earhart, whom we remember now for other reasons.)
History memorializes Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as the first people to reach the top of Mount Everest, but who can name the second successful ascent to the summit? (Ernst Schmied and Juerg Marmet of Switzerland.)
Our attention spans are sometimes short, short enough to remember the first of something and not the second. Certainly there is more glory in being first than second, but should it all be the difference between immortality and oblivion? We ask that question because of what happened 50 years ago today: Apollo 12 landed on the moon.
This summer the world marked a half-century since Apollo 11’s historic first moon landing. The mission that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon was the culmination of eight years of work — and generations of dreaming and research. Yet here’s something just as remarkable: Four months later we did it again. And by technical measures, we did it even better. Yet, today Apollo 12 is but a footnote. Even at the time, public interest in the second moon mission had plunged. We ended up landing on the moon six times, but the nation that pulled off this technological feat became bored by its own prowess. There was supposed to be an Apollo 18, 19 and 20 — but they were cancelled. Two of the moon landers that were under construction were simply cut up and sold for scrap. There’s speculation that some of the aluminum wound up being used to build F-14 fighter jets — plowshares hammered into swords. We remember Apollo 11 because it was Apollo 11. We remember Apollo 13 because of the movie that dramatized the rescue of the crew when an oxygen tank blew up while the mission was en route to the moon. In between, there’s Apollo 12, which did exactly what Apollo 11 did, only better — bringing to mind the famous tribute to dancer Ginger Rogers that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels.
Armstrong and Aldrin spent two hours and 31 minutes walking on the moon, collecting 47.5 pounds of rocks that are still being studied. Apollo 12 astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean made not one but two separate moonwalks, for a total of nearly eight hours. They brought back more than 75 pounds of rocks.
Apollo 11 was noteworthy because Armstrong had to take over the controls to guide the Eagle to a new landing spot four miles away when the computer was directing the craft toward a field of boulders. Apollo 12 was noteworthy the other way: Even the primitive computers on board were so precise that the Intrepid landed exactly where it was supposed to, within walking distance of the robotic Surveyor 3 spacecraft that had landed two years before. It remains the only time in human history that astronauts have “caught up” with a spacecraft we’d previously launched into space on a separate mission. “It was an astonishing achievement that we don’t hear much about,” says historian Rod Pyle, author of “First on the Moon: The Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Experience.”
The public may have already been bored, but spaceflight — especially to the moon — was still just as risky as ever. Apollo 12 was launched during a rainstorm; 36.5 seconds into the flight the ionized exhaust plume from the Saturn V rocket triggered two separate lightning strikes. As the website Vice puts it: “Unbeknownst to anyone at that moment, their spaceship had just become history’s highest and fastest lightning rod.” The rocket continued to fly normally but inside the command module where the astronauts were, nearly every warning light flashed on and the whole computer system crashed. The spaceship was now running only on batteries, which would last just two hours — but those batteries didn’t necessarily have enough power to get the astronauts back to earth. Flight director Gerry Griffin had 90 seconds to decide whether to abort the flight — itself a dangerous and untried maneuver. For 28 seconds, the official NASA transcript simply goes silent. “Conrad’s hand hovered near the abort lever,” Vice recounts.
But a 26-year-old flight controller remembered something, though. Nearly a year before, during a test, John Aaron had experimented with how to reset the obscure Signal Conditioning Electronics system. “Try SCE to Aux,” he told Griffin in the terse, no-syllables-wasted, language NASA engineers used. “What the hell’s that?” asked astronaut Gerald Carr, who was served as the official ground communicator to the crew. Nonetheless, he relayed the order anyway: “Apollo 12, Houston. Try SCE to auxiliary.” The lives of three men hung on an educated guess by a rancher’s son from Oklahoma. Neither mission commander Conrad nor command module pilot Richard Gordon recognized the command. There were hundreds of switches before them. But Bean remembered. He flicked the switch, everything suddenly returned to normal and Aaron was hailed as “a steely-eyed missile man.” Ground controllers gambled that everything would still work and sent the astronauts on to the moon. They never told the crew that the lightning might have damaged the parachutes; some worried about that until they flowered out just before splashdown.
Apollo 12 may have faded from our memories but the phrase it generated endures, both in the NASA world as a term of high praise, and in pop culture. In the movie “The Martian,” when a ground engineer figures out a way to work-around that will save a stranded astronaut (but violate mission orders), the crew cryptically tells mission control: “Houston, be advised: Rich Purnell is a steely-eyed missile man.” Technology geeks wryly observe Nov. 14 — the date of the launch — as “SCE to AUX Day.” And yes, you can buy T-shirts that say “Keep Calm and set SCE to AUX.”
The Apollo 12 astronauts have now all passed on. But the command module they rode in to the moon and back now rests at the Virginia Air and Space Museum in Hampton. It’s worth a trip across the state to see. Unless you’re young enough to qualify as an astronaut sometime in the future, it’s as close to the moon as we’ll ever get.