Pete Conrad had the time of his life as commander of Apollo 12. You could actually hear it in his voice. Neil Armstrong, the commander of Apollo 11, had to speak for the ages four months earlier when he became the first man on the moon. But Conrad, the third man, was free to speak his mind, and so his first historic word when he dropped down from the last step of the lunar module ladder was: “Whoopee!”
Just a few years before Conrad’s death in 1999, I asked him if he was ever worried during the 31-plus hours he and his crew mate Al Bean spent on the lunar surface. After all, if the lunar module’s ascent engine didn’t light when the time came to go home, they’d have been marooned there forever.
“Nah,” he answered. “I was a happy guy on the moon. You get over that fear the first time you fly an Earth orbital mission because if your engine doesn’t light you’re not coming home then either. It just seems worse to be stranded on the moon.”
But happy or not, fearless or not, Conrad and his Apollo 12 mission almost never made it to the moon at all. Of all of the perils every lunar mission faced — getting out of Earth orbit, getting into lunar orbit, descending to the moon, leaving the moon — it was easy to overlook the very first step: leaving the launch pad in the first place.
On Nov. 14, 1969, however, at 11:22 on a rainy morning at Cape Canaveral, Conrad and his crew learned just how terrible and perilous that initial, explosive step could be. The drama that played out in the moments after the engines lit and Conrad called “Liftoff!” from his left hand seat in the Apollo 12 command module would take just one minute and 57 seconds to play out. But they were a minute and 57 seconds that tested NASA’s mettle, the astronauts’ cool-headedness and the keen genius of one very sharp — and very young — engineer in Mission Control.
Episode six of “Countdown” tells the tale of Apollo 12, the mission that almost became the shortest NASA had ever flown — before it went on to become one of the greatest.