50 years ago: True moon exploration begins

Pete Conrad with the Surveyor on Nov. 20, 1969. The Lunar Module Intrepid sits above the rim of the crater in which Surveyor landed in 1967.

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“Whoopee!  Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a small one for Neil, but it’s a long one for me!”    So Pete Conrad, the third man on the moon, made a different kind of famous quote fifty years ago today, November 19.  And he wasn’t even on the moon yet, lowering himself from the Intrepid’s ladder to stand in the dish-shaped footpad.

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A long step, and a giant one in their own right, this second exploration of the moon.  Intrepid holding ground on the moon for 31.5 hours, compared to 22 hrs. for Apollo 11.  This the first of not one, but two moonwalks, each longer than the 2.5 hours Armstrong and Aldrin marked footprints on the lunar soil.  

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“Ooh, is that soft and queasy.  I don’t sink in too far.”  That’s Conrad’s actual first words upon stepping on the moon at 6:44 a.m. EST.  At first, he is cautious, taking uncertain baby steps.  “I have the decided impression I don’t want to move too rapidly. . . . I have to walk real carefully, Al.”   Al is Alan Bean, waiting to become the fourth person on the moon.  “I don’t think you’re going 5o steam around here quite as fast as you thought you were.”

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Apollo 12’s Conrad and Bean will venture much farther from the Lunar Module than dared by Armstrong and Aldrin, even with Armstrong’s quick jaunt to West Crater about 300 ft. away.  Intrepid’s duo will traverse 7,600 feet in their two walks, reaching a farthest point from the Lunar Module of 1,350 ft.

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Conrad’s tentativeness doesn’t last long.  “I feel great,” he says a half hour into the first walk.  Soon he is humming to himself, “dum-de-dum-dum,” in fine fiddle, sticking right to the detailed timeline.  “Hey, I could work out here all day.”   Apollo 12 begins the first true exploration of the moon, deploying a complex of five science instruments, the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (ALSEP) during the first walk, and conducing the first true lunar geology traverse, a loop of nearly a mile, on the second walk.

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“You’ll never believe it.  Guess what I see sitting on the side of the crater.  The old Surveyor.  Yes, sir, doesn’t that look neat.  It’ can’t be any further away than 600 feet from here.”   The Surveyor probe, which landed in 1967, with be the end-goal of the second walk.  They’ll retrieve its camera and scoop for analysis on earth to see the effects of 31 months on the moon.  Intrepid is sitting just 25 feet beyond the rim of the crater in which Surveyor sits. Conrad hadn’t realized how close he’d landed to the crater.

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“Dum-de-dum-dum.”  Opening up the moon’s surface to exploration, that’s Apollo 12.  The first moonwalk lasts 3 hr. 56 min.   About fifteen hours after the first walk, early on the morning of November 20, they do it again for another 3 hr. 49 min.  

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“Come over where I am — see that Surveyor sitting there?”  Alas, the world — that is, the part of it still interested — will not see Surveyor or much of the surface activities. The TV camera that promised to bring the moon to earth in living color, soon goes blind.   Moving it to a tripod, Al Bean accidentally points it at the sun, burning out the video tube.  

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“Dum-de-dum-dum,” and a high-pitched cackle of laughter. The voices of Conrad and Bean created an image for Apollo 12 that a TV view could never match. 

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