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Pete Conrad at Apollo 12

Pete Conrad at Apollo 12 (Space)

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Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr. (June 2, 1930 (90 years ago) – Jul. 8, 1999 (21 years ago)), was an American astronaut and engineer, and the third person to walk on the Moon. He also described himself as the first man to dance on the Moon. He flew on Gemini 5 and 11, Apollo 12, and Skylab 2 missions.

On the launch of his Gemini 5 flight on Aug. 21, 1965 (55 years ago), Conrad became the 10th American and the 20th human to fly in space.

Early life and Navy career

Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr. was born on Jun. 2, 1930 (90 years ago) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the third child and first son of Charles Conrad Sr. and Frances De Rappelage Conrad (née Vinson), a well-to-do real estate and banking family. His mother wanted very much to name her newborn son “Peter,” but Charles insisted that his first son bear his name. In a compromise between two iron wills, the name on his birth certificate would read “Charles Conrad, Jr.” but to his mother and virtually all who knew him, he was “Peter.” When he was 21, his fiancée’s father called him “Pete” and thereafter, Conrad adopted it. For the rest of his life, to virtually everyone, he was “Pete.”

The Great Depression wiped out the Conrad family’s fortune, as it did so many others. In 1942 (78 years ago), they lost their Philadelphia manor home and moved into a small carriage house, paid for by Frances’ brother, Egerton Vinson. Eventually, Charles Sr., broken by financial failure, moved out.

From the beginning, Conrad was clearly a bright, intelligent child, but he continually struggled with his schoolwork. He suffered from dyslexia, a condition which was little understood at the time. Conrad attended The Haverford School, a private academy in Haverford, Pennsylvania where previous generations of Conrads had attended. Even after his family’s financial downturn, his uncle Egerton supported his continued attendance at Haverford. However, Conrad’s dyslexia continued to frustrate his academic efforts. After he failed most of his 11th grade exams, Haverford expelled him.

Conrad’s mother refused to believe her son was unintelligent, and set about finding him a suitable school. She found the Darrow School in New Lebanon, New York. There, Conrad learned how to apply a “systems” approach to learning, and thus, found a way to work around his dyslexia. Despite having to repeat the 11th grade, Conrad so excelled at Darrow that after his graduation in 1949 (71 years ago), he not only was admitted to Princeton University, but he was also awarded a full Navy ROTC scholarship in the bargain.

Starting when he was fifteen, Conrad worked summers at Paoli Airfield in Philadelphia, trading lawn mowing, sweeping, and other odd jobs for airplane rides and occasional stick time. As he grew, and learned more about the mechanics and workings of aircraft and their engines, he graduated to minor repairs and maintenance. When he was 16, he drove almost 100 miles (160 km) to assist a flight instructor whose plane had been forced to make an emergency landing due to a throttle malfunction. Conrad repaired the plane single-handedly. Thereafter, the instructor gave Conrad the formal lessons he needed to earn his pilot’s license even before he graduated from high school.

Conrad continued flying while in college, not only maintaining his pilot’s license, but earning an instrument rating as well. He earned his bachelor's degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Princeton University in 1953 (67 years ago), after which he entered the United States Navy. [R 83] Conrad excelled in Navy flight school, and became a carrier pilot, known by the call sign “Squarewave.” Later, he became a flight instructor and a test pilot at Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

Conrad was invited to participate in the selection process for what would become the first group of NASA astronauts (the “Mercury Seven”). Conrad, like his fellow candidates, underwent several days of what he considered invasive, demeaning, and unnecessary medical and psychological testing at the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico. Unlike his fellow candidates, however, Conrad rebelled against the regimen. During a Rorschach inkblot test, he dismissively told the psychiatrist that one blot card revealed a sexual encounter, complete with lurid detail. When shown the next card, he studied it for a moment then deadpanned, “It’s upside down.” And when he was asked to deliver a stool sample to the on-site lab, he placed it in a gift box and tied a red ribbon around it. Eventually, he decided he'd had enough. After dropping his full enema bag on the desk of the Clinic’s commanding officer he walked out. His initial NASA application was denied with the notation "not suitable for long-duration flight."

Thereafter, when NASA announced its search for a second group of astronauts, Alan Shepard, who knew Conrad from their time as Naval aviators and test pilots, approached Conrad and persuaded him to re-apply. This time, the medical tests were less offensive and Conrad was invited to join NASA.

NASA career: Apollo

In the aftermath of the Jan. 1967 (53 years ago) Apollo 1 disaster, NASA’s plan to incrementally test Saturn V and Apollo spacecraft components leading to the lunar landing had to be significantly revised in order to meet John F. Kennedy’s goal of reaching the Moon by the end of the decade. Initially, Conrad was assigned to command the back-up crew for the first flight of the Saturn V/Apollo spacecraft into high earth orbit, which was initially scheduled to become Apollo 8. When a “lunar-orbit-without-lunar-module” mission (known in NASA parlance as the “C-prime” mission”) was later approved and inserted into the schedule, that mission became Apollo 8, and the mission backed by Conrad subsequently became Apollo 9. Deke Slayton’s practice in assigning crews was to assign a back-up crew as prime crew for the third mission after that crew’s back-up mission. Without the “C-prime” mission, Conrad might have commanded Apollo 11, which became the first mission to land on the Moon.

On Nov. 14, 1969 (51 years ago), Apollo 12 launched with Conrad as commander, Dick Gordon as Command Module Pilot and Alan Bean as Lunar Module Pilot. The launch was the most harrowing of the Apollo program, as a series of lightning strikes just after liftoff temporarily knocked out power and guidance in the command module. Five days later, after stepping onto the lunar surface, Conrad joked about his own small stature by remarking:

“ Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me. ”

He later revealed that he said this in order to win a bet he had made with the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci for $500 to prove that NASA did not script astronaut comments.

Conrad might have returned to the moon had Apollo 20 not been canceled.

Personal life

While at Princeton, Conrad met Jane DuBose, a student at Bryn Mawr, whose family owned a 1,600-acre (6.5 km2) ranch near Uvalde, Texas. Her father, Winn DuBose, was the first person to call Conrad “Pete” rather than “Peter,” the name he had used since birth. Upon his graduation from Princeton and acceptance of his Navy commission, Conrad and Jane were married on Jun. 16, 1953 (67 years ago). They had four children, all boys: Peter, born in 1954 (66 years ago), Thomas, Andrew, and his youngest, Christopher, born in 1961 (59 years ago).

Given the demands of his career in the Navy and NASA, Pete and Jane spent a great deal of time apart, and Pete saw less of his boys growing up than he would have liked. Even after he retired from NASA and the Navy, he kept himself busy. Soon, Jane had established a separate life for herself. In 1988 (32 years ago), with their sons all grown and moved out, Pete and Jane divorced. Some years later, Jane remarried.

In 1989 (31 years ago), Conrad’s youngest son, Christopher, was stricken with malignant lymphoma. He died in Apr. 1990 (30 years ago), at the age of 28.

Conrad met Nancy Crane, a Denver divorcee, through mutual friends. After a time, their friendship blossomed. Pete Conrad and Nancy Crane were married in San Francisco in the spring of 1990 (30 years ago).

Death

On Jul. 8, 1999 (21 years ago), less than three weeks before the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing, while motorcycling in Ojai, California with friends, he ran off the road and crashed. His injuries were first thought to be minor, but he died from internal bleeding about six hours later. He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery, with many Apollo-era astronauts in attendance.

Popular Culture

Conrad is a central figure in the book The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. Much of the book's insight into the attitudes and behavior of both the astronauts and their wives before and during the astronaut selection process are presented through the eyes of Conrad and his wife. In the movie, much of this was shifted to Alan Shepard and the other Mercury astronauts.

In TV and film

In the 1995 (25 years ago) movie Apollo 13, Conrad was played by David Andrews. In the 1998 (22 years ago) HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, he was played by Peter Scolari (in episode 1, "Can We Do This?") and by Paul McCrane (in episode 7, "That's All There Is"). Pete Conrad played himself in the TV movie "Plymouth," about a fictional lunar base and in the made for TV movie "Stowaway to the Moon".


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