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This Day in History: The nearly forgotten story of Apollo 12

On this day in 1929, a future astronaut is born. Richard “Dick” Gordon, Jr. was aboard Apollo 12 when that spacecraft was struck by lightning. Did you know that one Apollo mission nearly ended in disaster because of a lightning strike?

Apollo 12 tends to get lost in the shadows of the more famous Apollos 11 and 13. The former, of course, put Neil Armstrong on the moon. The latter struggled to return to Earth after an oxygen tank exploded in space.

Too bad, because the astronauts aboard Apollo 12 have a story of their own to tell.

Gordon, Pete Conrad, and Alan Bean would face many challenges on their launch day: November 14, 1969. It was a rainy, stormy kind of a day, but the crew was still scheduled to depart.

Conrad would later describe what it was like to sit on the launch pad in the midst of the storm. “[W]e’re shaking and rattling, blowin’ and goin,’” he said. “I mean, this is it. We are on our way, blasting right through this thunderstorm, heading for the Moon.”

Or so he thought. Less than a minute after Apollo 12 lifted off, lightning struck. Then a second bolt struck, too. The spacecraft had basically turned itself into a huge lightning rod.

“[A]ll of a sudden, everything, all the data went away,” NASA Flight Director Gerry Griffin would later recount, “and there was a big static in my headset.” EECOM John Aaron concurred: “I look down at all my telemetry data, the readouts from the spacecraft, and they were nonsensical.”

Things were just as confusing aboard the spacecraft. The astronauts didn’t know what had happened. They just knew that everything had gone haywire. “All eleven system warning lights fire at the same time,” Conrad later described. “Now, in the most catastrophic simulations, we’ve seen maybe three or four go off— but right now in the real deal, the whole board looks like a Christmas tree.” Bean concurred. “All of a sudden, master alarm comes on,” he later said. “I look up there at the display that has all the caution and warning lights on there. There was more of ‘em on there than I’d ever seen in my life. There was no pattern. I had no idea what to do.”

The main electrical system had been knocked off line. Confusion reigned aboard the Command Module and at Mission Control because none of the data from the spacecraft could be accessed. Nevertheless, the Saturn V rocket seemed unaffected: It was still continuing on its trajectory into space.

What should be done? Could the electrical system be restored? Should the astronauts abort before it was too late? Decisions had to be made—and quickly.

In the end, Aaron and Bean saved the day. Aaron had seen similar nonsensical data about a year earlier, during a flight simulation. Thus, he knew about an obscure switch aboard the spacecraft. “I had seen that pattern before,” he later recounted with a smile,” and it had been one year since I’d seen it. But it was like that pattern was written on my mind.”

The obscure SCE switch needed to be switched to auxiliary power. The message was sent from Mission Control to the astronauts aboard Apollo 12. But Conrad had no idea what the switch was! “What the hell is that?” he asked.

Fortunately, Bean had randomly learned about the switch, too—and it was enough. Mission Control was able to see Apollo 12’s data again, and they were able to figure out how to get the main fuel cells back online.

“Pete Conrad broke out in nervous laughter,” Aaron remembered. “He laughed all the way into orbit.” “Thank God for Mission Control,” Bean concluded, “I didn’t have any idea what to do.”

Apollo 12 was saved.

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