Nov 14

When the Navy Flew to the Moon

Thursday, November 14, 2019 12:01 AM


On 20 July 1969 two American’s made history when they first stepped foot on the moon. Everyone remembers the Apollo 11 mission and those first steps, but most people forget the six missions that followed. Only four months after the triumph of Apollo 11 the next crew made the second landing. Apollo 12 was a longer mission with a pinpoint landing and more detailed scientific objectives. It also featured the only all Navy crew of the Apollo program.

Apollo 12 crew portrait. Left to right are Charles Conrad Jr., Richard F. Gordon Jr., and Alan L. Bean.

Apollo 12 mission insignia connected the crew to its Navy roots. The four stars represent the crew and the original Lunar Module Pilot Clifton Williams killed in a T-38 crash two years earlier.

The crew consisted of Navy Commanders Charles “Pete” Conrad, Richard “Dick” Gordon, and Alan L. Bean. All were experienced Naval aviators. Conrad and Bean flew together on Gemini XI as part of the Gemini Program, while Bean was a rookie making his first space flight. All had test flying experience with more than 1,000 hours in jet aircraft. They were considered to be the closest of any Apollo crew, so much so they had matching gold Corvettes.

The 1967 Corvette Sting Ray owned by Alan Bean. The custom plate on Bean’s Corvette indicated his mission assignment as lunar module pilot.
(Courtesy of the Author)

The Apollo 12 mission was a ten-day flight that launched on 14 November 1969. The main space craft was the Command Module Yankee Clipper, accompanied by the Lunar Module Intrepid. The mission’s target was the Ocean of Storms. Unlike Apollo 11, the target was essential to the flight of Apollo 12. A main objective of the mission was to land near the Surveyor III, an unmanned lander that had landed on the moon in April 1967. A pinpoint landing within walking distance was required to recover pieces of the Surveyor III.

Apollo 12 launched in a heavy rainstorm. The Saturn V launch vehicle itself caused two lightning events when lightning traveled through the launch vehicle to the ground. The lightning strikes reset the spacecraft fuel cells resulting in the Command Module Yankee Clipper automatically switching to battery power. The batteries were only intended for reentry, so it was critical the fuel cells restart. Quick thinking by flight controller John Aaron had the crew reset the Signal Conditioning Equipment (SCE) switch triggering a fuel cell restart before battery power was critically drained. Once in Earth orbit, flight controllers cleared the Apollo 12 mission for the Lunar Orbit Insertion burn sending it on its way to the moon.

Apollo 12 liftoff before lightning strikes.

Apollo 12 entered lunar orbit on 18 November and the Lunar Module Intrepid detached from Yankee Clipper to carry Conrad and Bean to the lunar surface while Gordon remained in lunar orbit. Conrad brought Intrepid down 600 feet from the Surveyor III target. This was the first pinpoint landing of the Apollo program. Two Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) or moon walks were conducted. Unlike the Apollo 11 mission, Apollo 12 conducted several scientific studies. The first Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (ALSEP) was left on the surface. ALSEP included a variety of scientific instruments. Lunar rock and soil samples were collected as well.

Astronaut Charles Conrad Jr., commander, uses the lunar equipment conveyor at the lunar module during the Apollo 12 extravehicular activity on the lunar surface.


Astronaut Alan L. Bean, lunar module pilot for the Apollo 12 mission, starts down the ladder of the lunar module to join astronaut Charles Conrad Jr., mission commander, in extravehicular activity.

During the second EVA, Conrad and Bean journeyed to the Surveyor III probe and recovered several pieces for study back on Earth. The crew also left an astronaut pin and naval aviator wings on the lunar surface. The pin and wings belonged to Major Clifton C. Williams (USMC). Williams was the original lunar module pilot assigned with Conrad and Gordon to the Apollo 9 backup crew. The normal crew rotation meant he would have been LMP on Apollo 12. Tragically, Williams was killed in the crash of a T-38 jet trainer on 5 October 1967.

Conrad examines the unmanned Surveyor III spacecraft during the second extravehicular activity.


Astronaut Richard F. Gordon attaches a high-resolution telephoto lens to a camera aboard the Apollo 12 Command Module Yankee Clipper.

After 31.6 hours on the lunar surface Intrepid lifted off and docked with Yankee Clipper. After transferring lunar samples, pieces of Surveyor III and other equipment to Yankee Clipper, Intrepid jettisoned to crash back onto the lunar surface.

Yankee Clipper returned to Earth on 24 November 1969 and was recovered by the USS Hornet (CV-12) in the Pacific Ocean. The mission lasted 244 hours, 36 minutes and 25 seconds. Once onboard the Hornet, the crew was immediately moved to a mobile quarantine facility where they remained until they returned to Johnson Space Center and quarantined in a larger facility. The crew remained in quarantine for 21 days. Quarantine was considered necessary on the early flights for fear that astronauts may bring an extraterrestrial germ or viruses back to Earth. The practice was discontinued after Apollo 14.

The Apollo 12 splashdown at 2:58 p.m., 24 November 1969, near American Samoa.


Apollo 12 crew in quarantine on the USS Hornet. Rear Admiral Donald C. David, Commander, Manned Spacecraft Recovery Force, Pacific, welcomes the crew aboard.

Apollo 12 is an often forgotten mission among the lunar landing flights. The mission fell between the first landing of Apollo 11 and the near disaster of Apollo 13, and there was no television footage of the EVAs due to Bean accidentally pointing the camera into the sun. For those reasons, the mission is often overlooked even though it was considered one of the most successful missions of the Apollo program. Today, Yankee Clipper is on display at the Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton, Virginia, and the restored mobile quarantine facility is on display at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Also displayed nearby is one of the Apollo 12 lunar samples.

Apollo 12 Command Module Yankee Clipper on display
(Virginia Air and Space Center)


Quarantine trailer at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center
(Courtesy of the Author)

Charles Conrad Jr. went on to fly as Commander of the Skylab 2 mission. He retired from NASA and the Navy in 1973 as a captain and went into the private sector. He died in a motorcycle crash in 1996.

Alan L. Bean commanded Skylab 3 before retiring from the Navy in 1975 as a captain, and NASA in 1981. He became an artist, painting many Apollo inspired works. Bean died unexpectedly in 2018 after a sudden illness.

Richard F. Gordon Jr. never flew in space again. He held out for command of Apollo 18 over command of a Skylab mission. Unfortunately, Apollo 18 was canceled due to budget cuts. He retired from NASA and the Navy as a captain in 1972. Gordon passed away in 2017.

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