HUNTINGTON BEACH — As one of 12 men to walk on the moon, you’d think that Pete Conrad would recall the event like a giddy teen remembers his first kiss.
Instead, the retired Navy captain routinely answers the question with the smooth, calm demeanor of a Right Stuff-era test pilot.
It was just a job, something he spent several years training for, he said.
“You’ve got to understand my background,” the Seacliff-area resident said explaining his apparent lack of enthusiasm. “I think I fail to get that across to people.”
But as the 25th anniversary of the first moon landing approaches later this month, and as his own such commemoration arrives in November, a little of the excitement is working its way into his voice.
But if one emotion dominated, it was a melancholy one. It first hit, Conrad said, as he was preparing to leave the moon after spending 32 hours there.
“It turned out to be a great place,” Conrad said. “It turned out to be a friendly place. I knew at the time that I went that I wasn’t going to get a second time,” he said. “We were already winding down. I was somewhat sad that I wasn’t going to get another time.”
As the commander of Apollo 12 from November 14-24, 1969, Conrad became the third man to walk on the moon as astronaut Alan Bean followed him down the lunar module’s ladder.
Conrad could have been first.
If something had gone wrong aboard Apollo 11 — if Neil Armstrong hadn’t been able to set the Eagle down at the Sea of Tranquillity for any reason — like it did when an explosion left Apollo 13 clinging to life, we’d be celebrating the first lunar landing this September, Conrad said.
Much has been made about the fact that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had only 16 seconds of fuel left when they landed. And there was a series of other alarms as the team glided towards a moon landing.
Conrad, and everyone else in Mission Control on July 20, 1969, knew it could have gone the other way. The test pilot in him simply was prepared.
“What our good leader said is we didn’t know who was going to be the first (man on the moon) until they actually landed,” Conrad said. “If the had not made it we were supposed to fly in two months.”
What was the mood in that Houston control room when the Eagle landed safely?: “Everybody had a big ‘hurrah’ and went back to work.”
Conrad, now a McDonnell Douglas vice president, made four space flights in his NASA career and was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1980.
In 1973, he became one of America’s first three space station occupants when he commanded the first Skylab mission. He flew two Gemini missions, in 1965 and 1966, that helped prepare for the moon landings.
Now, he’s become a ’90s-era test pilot, heading a three-person crew that flies a prototype unmanned rocket from a computer console.
Conrad, and other McDonnell Douglas officials, hope the gumdrop-shaped, reusable rocket — that the company plans to operate like an airplane, with turnaround in a matter of days — will bring a new generation in space exploration.
“If I can contribute to that,” Conrad said, “that’ll mean a lot more than anything I did in the past.”