Tag Archives: space

Be Colorful! Celebrating Pete Conrad

Pete racing on the weekendImage

(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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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(photo credit arlingtoncemetery.net)

 

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Astronaut Shot Down By a Nun

Up for sale at Heritage Auctions (minimum bid $1,000) is a great series of letters between Apollo astronaut Jack Swigert (the cute swinging single one in Apollo 13) and actress Dolores Hart.  Hart was a successful and beautiful actress with a firm Catholic faith — so firm that she became a nun in 1963.  It is cute to see this tough aviator/astronaut write her a fan letter, then eventually work up his nerve to ask her for a dinner date.  She turned him down, and he backpedalled and acted like he wasn’t really asking her for a date.  I’m attaching notes and images from heritageauctions.com.   This was featured in one of my favorite space blogs, lightthiscandle.com.  Dolores had some DAMN strong faith.  I would not have refused a date with Jack Swigert!

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Jack Swigert Archive of Letters to Actress Dolores Hart, 1961-1963. Jack Swigert was chosen as an astronaut in April 1966 as part of the fifth NASA group. Previous to that he was an Air Force pilot flying jet fighters in Korea and then a test pilot for Pratt Witney and North American Aviation. He is best known as the last-minute substitute for Ken Mattingly as command module pilot on the ill-fated Apollo 13. Dolores Hart was a talented and beautiful young actress who made her debut in Loving You as Elvis Presley’s love interest in 1957. She later appeared with Elvis again in King Creole. After several successful movies including a part as a nun in Francis of Assisi, she actually did join a religious order in 1963, becoming a Roman Catholic nun at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Pilot and future astronaut Jack Swigert read an article about her in Parade Magazine in 1961 and, as a Catholic himself, was impressed with her religious views (and beauty, of course) and started a correspondence with her. These are the letters he wrote her over a two year period. Most are well-worn with notes written on them by Hart or her secretary. Also included in the archive are various clippings about his career. Overall good. Excerpts follow.

 

October 22, 1961, two pages handwritten, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Without a doubt you’ll get many letters but it is still a hope that this one gets by the many mail openers- and to you personally.
“Just wanted to express my thought on the fine article in Parade Magazine— especially about your views on religion and its place in your career. To be sure there isn’t much that reaches the public from that field which shows religion has much of a place-especially from the Catholic side. It is good to see that religion has the meaning and importance to you.
“In my case, the Jesuit education in Denver gave me the foundation and I think my test pilot occupation helps me to retain the importance of religion which sometimes escapes in a modern world… This wasn’t meant to be a religious letter. Impetuous as pilots sometimes are, just thought you might like to know someone from the other side of the country likes your ideas and wishes you well. Sincerely Jack (Swigert)”

 

March 31, 1962, two pages handwritten with envelope, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Have an airplane for the Easter weekend and will be westward bound. L.A. being only about 1½ hours from Denver should put me there sometime Saturday morning. If you have no plans for Saturday evening- or the afternoon for that matter it would be a most pleasant end to a long trip to have dinner and a drink together.
“Thanks again for the pictures and taking the time to answer my letter about the Parade article… With best wishes Jack Swigert”

 

April 18, 1962, one page typewritten (carbon), Hart to Swigert.
“Dear Jack: It was most thoughtful of you to include me in your Easter holiday plans, but, unfortunately, I am unable to accept your invitation to dine with you during your visit to Los Angeles… Sincerely. Dolores Hart”

 

May 9, 1962, three pages handwritten with envelope and clipping, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Your letter must have reached Conn. Just about the time I was leaving California for Denver and points East…
“Imagine our two professions are much alike. There’s a challenge and, with something different all the time, it certainly never gets to be the 9 – 5 routine. But after Glenn’s ride it’s obvious where the future is in the flight test field… Sincerely Jack”

 

June 2, 1963, two pages with envelope and color photo, Swigert to Hart.
“Dear Dolores, Your letter came while I was at the Manned Space Conference in Dallas…
“Have I been guilty of creating the wrong impression?… Remember- it was an article about you in Parade that prompted my letter way back when. Felt that an article which revealed high religious and moral values together with intelligence and femininity was too unusual a combination for modern Hollywood to go unacknowledged… Best wishes Jack Swigert”

 

Swigert, who died of cancer in 1982, never married. This was addressed in his New York Times obituary: “He was a lifelong bachelor, and some of the other astronauts, all of whom were married, joked that he was somewhat of a swinger. One of his sisters once said he had ‘a girl in every airport from coast to coast.’ He used to say that he was not a confirmed bachelor but that it was just that he had just not met the right woman. As an astronaut, Mr. Swigert lived in apartment near the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, which he had outfitted with a beer spigot in the kitchen and an elaborate stereophonic sound system.” Here is evidence that he did try to meet the right woman in the early sixties but things just didn’t work out. Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000.

 

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