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It's Been 50 Years Since Apollo 12 Landed On The Moon

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the second time humans set foot on the moon. Apollo 12 landed on the surface on this date in 1969. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has the story of why almost nobody seems to remember this.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Everyone knows Apollo 11, of course - that was the one with the one small step - and Apollo 13, the one Tom Hanks made a movie about. But what about Apollo 12?

TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: The launch happened on a day - the weather was horrible.

GREENE: Teasel Muir-Harmony is curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. There were thunderstorms that day, and the rocket was actually struck by lightning twice on the way up.

MUIR-HARMONY: That led to electrical problem and the shutdown of a lot of the controls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETE CONRAD: OK. We just lost the platform, gang. I don't know what happened here. We had everything in the world drop out.

UNIDENTIFIED NASA CAPSULE COMMUNICATOR: Roger.

BRUMFIEL: Fortunately, the rocket kept flying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONRAD: Think we need to do a little more all-weather testing.

UNIDENTIFIED NASA CAPSULE COMMUNICATOR: Amen.

BRUMFIEL: And that was the dramatic beginning of what turned into, frankly, kind of a goofy road trip. Mission Commander Pete Conrad brought up a tape deck.

MUIR-HARMONY: He thought it was - they really needed entertainment.

BRUMFIEL: Conrad, the commander, made the playlist - Dusty Springfield, Elvis, some classic country. He and fellow astronauts Alan Bean and Richard Gordon had all met as pilots in the Navy.

MUIR-HARMONY: These guys were all friends. They all knew each other before they became Apollo astronauts.

BRUMFIEL: Which really comes across when you hear Bean and Conrad landing on the moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONRAD: There it is. Son of a gun. Right down the middle of the road.

BRUMFIEL: They were having fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONRAD: I can't believe it. Amazing.

BRUMFIEL: Pete Conrad's first words on the moon?

MUIR-HARMONY: It's something like, whoopee. It might have been one small step for Neil, but that was one giant step for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONRAD: Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me.

BRUMFIEL: Conrad was joking about his height. He was short.

MUIR-HARMONY: This crew was hilarious (laughter). There are a lot of really good clips. They were really entertaining.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONRAD: (Singing) Dum, da, dum, dum, dum (ph).

BRUMFIEL: Seriously, Conrad did a lot of singing to himself as he bounced around on the lunar surface.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONRAD: (Singing) Bum, bum, bum, bum (ph).

Boy, do I like to run up here. This is neat.

BRUMFIEL: The trip back went smoothly. Conrad let Bean drive the spaceship a little bit, even though he wasn't supposed to. They reached Earth and made a perfect landing in the Pacific - got a hero's welcome from President Richard Nixon.

MUIR-HARMONY: But they could tell that Nixon's focus was elsewhere.

BRUMFIEL: He was trying to negotiate an arms control treaty with the Soviets. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, things kept getting worse. On the second day the astronauts were on the moon, pictures emerged of a massacre at a town called My Lai.

MUIR-HARMONY: It's hard to feel optimistic and excited and focused on exploration when these horrible atrocities are happening on Earth.

BRUMFIEL: Muir-Harmony says Apollo 12 got lost in all the geopolitics and war and suffering. But for what it's worth, the astronauts had a pretty good time.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE WOMAN")

BOBBY SHERMAN: (Singing) Hey, little woman, please make up your mind. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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