Pete racing on the weekend
(photo credit gettyimages.com)
“If you can’t be good, be colorful,” said astronaut Pete Conrad (1930-1999). This remark captures why this guy will always be my favorite astronaut. He could do all the aviator hero stuff: hotshot test pilot, raced cars in Formula V and SCCA, flew Gemini V and XI, commanded Apollo XII, helped develop and flew Skylab, then went on to an illustrious career in private aviation industry. “Should play Pete Conrad in a Pete Conrad movie,” said Michael Collins of his fellow astronaut.
Pete was a badass while laughing at himself, because even though he was in a deadly serious business he never took himself too seriously. Simply, he was not an arrogant prick. I’ve always loved people who can pull off bravado without boasting, who can pull off snark-free swagger. And if they can be funny while doing something amazing — sheeeejuz! Mercutio and Prince Hal: those are my type of guys.
Pete nearly fell asleep while sitting atop the Saturn V rocket before the Apollo 12 launch, leading everyone including Walter Cronkite to believe he was incredibly relaxed. He later admitted he was drowsy because he’d lost so much sleep due to the inherent stress and yes, fear, involved in preparation for a lunar mission. Then there was the time he claimed that he tried, really tried to get Deke Slayton, Neil Armstrong, and a bunch of other guys to slow down their wild Corvette stampede on the freeway before they got arrested, and they did get arrested. Sure, Pete.
Out of all the pantheon of space heroes, I still flip to “C” for Conrad in the index of any new space book I pick up. My heart skips a beat if I find a story or photo of him that I’ve never heard or seen before. I swooned when I saw this shot of him (above) standing next to a Porsche 911 race car at Daytona International Speedway in the early 1970s. My favorite astronaut! And my favorite car! Together! My circuits overloaded and fried. (And yes, space freaks, I had to take a moment to sigh, collect myself and switch SCE to AUX. My admiration is no doubt muddled with some loving image of my own father, another gap-toothed, blue-eyed blonde whose general cruising speed in those days was 100 mph in a car or on a motorcycle.)
Pete Conrad could find the funny side of any situation. Probably his best-known quip is the one he delivered as he stepped out of the Apollo 12 lunar module. By this time, Apollo 11 had flown and Pete’s colleague Neil Armstrong had delivered his famous “one small step” line. Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci didn’t believe that Armstrong conjured this line by himself. Pete argued with her that he could deliver a flip remark completely unscripted by NASA as he stepped onto the moon’s surface. The diminutive, 5’6 Conrad said, “Whoopee! Man, that might have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me!” Pete later said, “If I could get $500 off a Communist that was pretty good,” referring to the sum of money he bet the leftist writer. He won the bet but never saw his $500.
His sense of humor was not always appreciated. In fact, he didn’t make the cut for the original Mercury 7 because he was a smartass. After being subjected to the usual degrading and grueling physicals in the astronaut screening process, he decided to have some fun at a psychological test. After showing him all kinds of Rorschach ink blobs, the testers showed him a blank card. Pete deadpanned, “It’s upside down.” He also purportedly delivered his enema bag and stool sample with an extra flourish. The selection committee deemed him “unsuitable for long duration spaceflight.”
A few years later he got a second chance to apply to the Astronaut Corps. This time he made it. There’s a shot from 1962 showing “The New Nine” as they were called, the next batch of astronauts who would form the backbone of the Apollo program. Pete, who became known for his sharp clothes and extensive hat collection, already displays sartorial originality. The other guys are eager and earnest looking in serious dark suits, while Pete flanks the group in a dapper light colored suit looking ready for a garden party or the Kentucky Derby.
The New Nine, 1962 ( photo credit digitalprojects.libraries.uc.ed)
After nearly dying of boredom when he ran out of things to say to Gordo Cooper on an 8-day Gemini V flight, Pete insisted that crews be allowed to take music on their missions for the sake of entertainment. Even without music, Pete provided his own soundtrack of tuneless humming, gum chewing, and profanities, which cracked up countless technicians, flight simulator operators, and other astronauts. NASA administration was a little apprehensive … what if he says stuff like this during the mission … like, on national television? He didn’t. Pete developed a very precise sense of how much he could get away with. He refrained from his plan to somersault across the deck of the aircraft carrier after Gemini V, when he spotted red carpets, admirals, and a brass band. The recording loop of Apollo 12 is full of Pete’s unexplained laughter on the lunar surface. Today we know that his buddies tucked pictures of Playboy centerfolds into his mission checklist with notes reminding him to “check the protuberances” — on the lunar surface, of course. By that time, Pete knew enough not to explain his laughter.
His Apollo crew loved him. Pete, Dick Gordon, and Alan Bean roared around the Cape and Cocoa Beach in a trio of matching gold Corvettes, throwing down the gauntlet to all the other crews hoping to express their solidarity through a macho display of horsepower. These 1969 models had four speed manual transmission and 429 cubic inch/390 horsepower engines. They were part of a sweet lease deal that astronauts had with GM dealer Jim Rathmann. At this writing, to my knowledge, only Alan Bean’s Vette has resurfaced as has been restored to pristine, Apollo-era condition.
The jester of the Astronaut Corps, Pete seemed to find happiness in everything he did, never waxing poetic, weepy, or profound about his moonwalk. “Super!” he’d say, “Really enjoyed it!” he’d tell inquiring fans about his mission, like he’d been on a cruise to the Bahamas. Sometimes space fans would feel cheated because they’d want more strum und drang, and he just wouldn’t give it to them. Wasn’t in his nature.
That’s not to say, however, that he always had an easy time. Born June 2, 1930, Charles Conrad, Jr. was born to a wealthy Philadelphia family, only to see his father’s fortune and his parents’ marriage crumble in the aftermath of the Depression. During his school years, he struggled with dyslexia, then an unrecognized disorder. By sheer application and a systematic approach to study, he overcame his academic setbacks sufficiently to attend and graduate from Princeton. In perhaps the saddest chapter of Pete’s life, his youngest son Christopher died from lymphoma at the age of 28.
Apollo 12 liftoff (photo credit aerospaceweb.org)
Crash! On November 14, 1969, the launch of Apollo 12 was probably the scariest liftoff of the whole Apollo program. The giant Saturn V rocket was struck by lightning, causing power in the command module to go haywire. “The flight was extremely normal . . . for the first 36 seconds,“ said Pete, “then got very interesting.” The crew was perplexed, until flight controller John Aaron suggested switching SCE to AUX. Luckily, Alan Bean knew the correct switch to hit and Pete’s hand never twisted the abort handle. The mission was on target and moonbound, as Pete guessed correctly that they’d been hit by lightning. Listening to a recording today, the crew’s sangfroid is remarkable.
I’m not sure what I was doing that day, fifty miles up the coast in New Smyrna, but it’s likely there was a launch party on a Friday with lots of booze. Some of our neighbors worked at the Cape, and as a four-year-old rugrat I had a ringside, knee-high view of grownup hijinks and excitement. I remember lots of terrazzo floors and soggy cocktail napkins in those days.
After a pinpoint landing on the moon, a successful moonwalk, and while piloting the lunar module Intreped to rendezvous with command module Yankee Clipper, Pete asked “rookie” Alan Bean if he’d like to take the controls. Usually tasks were strictly defined — and monitored by Mission Control. Pete generously let the younger man handle the craft during a burn on the dark side of the moon, when NASA would be none the wiser, giving Al a chance he’d never get otherwise. This is what I mean by badass: doing something so difficult yet being so relaxed and competent that you can make a generous, fun, and selfless gesture to another human being.
This post barely glosses the surface of who Pete Conrad was and what he did. So many people actually met him, knew him, and have wonderful stories to tell that they’ve shared online.
In 1999, Pete’s luck ran out and he died at the age of 69 after sustaining internal injuries in a motorcycle accident. As tragic and unnecessary as his death was, he exited life the way he lived it: having fun, moving fast, pushing the envelope. At a memorial service at Johnson Space Center, his old buddy Al Bean pretended to “channel” his spirit, and claimed that Pete requested colored lights on his memorial tree at JSC. And that’s what happened. The grove at JSC twinkles with white lights for astronauts no longer with us; except for Pete’s tree, which twinkles bright red. As Al Bean said, he was both good and colorful.
Happy Birthday, Pete Conrad! There are so many of us on this earth who will always miss you.
(photo credit arlingtoncemetery.net)