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50 Years Ago: Apollo 12 Astronauts Leave Quarantine

For the first time in nearly four weeks, Apollo 12 astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad, Richard F. Gordon, and Alan L. Bean stepped out into sunshine and breathed unfiltered air. Since their launch on Nov. 14, 1969, the trio had been inside their spacecraft for 10 days on their mission to the Moon and back, wore respirators during their recovery in the Pacific Ocean, housed in the Mobile Quarantine Facility during the trip from the prime recovery ship USS Hornet back to Houston, and inside the Crew Reception Area (CRA) of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL) at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), now the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Like the Apollo 11 crew before them, Conrad, Gordon, and Bean exhibited no symptoms of any infections with lunar microorganisms and managers declared them fit to be released from quarantine on Dec. 10, 1969. MSC Director Robert L. Gilruth, other managers and a crowd of well-wishers were on hand to greet the astronauts who completed the second Moon landing mission. Their next few months proved to be extremely busy with many ceremonial functions.

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MSC Director Gilruth and others greet Apollo 12 astronauts (left to right) Conrad, Gordon, and Bean as they emerge from the LRL’s CRA.

Addressing the crowd gathered outside the LRL, Conrad commented that “the LRL was really quite pleasant,” but all three were glad to be breathing non man-made air! While the men went home to their families for a short rest, work inside the LRL continued. Scientists began examining the first of the 75 pounds of rocks returned by the astronauts as well as the camera and other hardware they removed from Surveyor 3 for effects of 31 months exposed to the harsh lunar environment. Preliminary analysis of the TV camera that failed early during their first spacewalk on the lunar surface indicated that the failure was due to partial burnout of the Videocon tube, likely caused by the crew accidentally pointing the camera toward the Sun. Other scientists busied themselves with analyzing the data returning from the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (ALSEP) instruments Conrad and Bean deployed on the lunar surface. Mission planners examining the photographs taken from lunar orbit of the Fra Mauro area were confident that the next mission, Apollo 13, would be able to make a safe landing in that geologically interesting site, the first attempt to land in the lunar highlands.

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Left: After taking their first steps in the sunshine, Apollo 12 astronauts (left to right) Conrad, Bean, and Gordon address a large group of well-wishers outside the LRL. Right: Apollo 12 astronauts (left to right) Bean, Gordon, and Conrad during their postflight press conference.

Two days after leaving the LRL, Conrad, Gordon, and Bean held their postflight press conference in the MSC auditorium. Addressing the assembled reporters, the astronauts first introduced their wives as their “number one support team” and then provided a film and photo summary of their mission and answered numerous questions. Among other things, the astronauts praised the spacesuits they wore during the Moon walks, indicating they worked very well and looking to the future saw no impediments to longer excursions on future missions. Their only concern centered around the ever-present lunar dust that clung to their suits, raising that as a potential issue for future lunar explorers.

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Left: KSC Director Debus (at right) presenting Apollo 12 astronauts (left to right) Conrad, Gordon, and Bean with photos of their launch. Right: Group photo of the Apollo 12 astronauts and their wives with President Nixon, First Lady Pat Nixon and their daughter Tricia Nixon.

Conrad, Gordon, and Bean returned to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Dec. 17, where their mission began more than a month earlier and nearly ended prematurely when their Saturn V rocket was struck by lightning, twice. KSC Director Kurt H. Debus presented each astronaut with a framed photograph of their launch in front of 8,000 workers assembled in the Vehicle Assembly Building. Of their nearly ill-fated litfoff Conrad expressed his signature confidence, “Had we to do it again, I would launch exactly under the same conditions.” Guenter Wendt and his pad closeout team had collected a piece of grounding rod from the umbilical tower, cut it into three short pieces, mounted them with the inscription “In fond memory of the electrifying launch of Apollo 12,” and presented them to the astronauts. Three days later, President Richard M. Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon welcomed Conrad, Gordon, and Bean and their wives Jane, Barbara, and Sue, respectively, to a dinner at the White House. After dinner, they watched a film about the Apollo 12 mission as well as the recently-released motion picture Marooned about three astronauts stranded in space. President Nixon requested that the astronauts pay a visit to former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who for many years championed America’s space program, and brief him on their mission.

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Left: The Alan Bean Day parade in Fort Worth. Right: Apollo 12 astronaut Bean and his family deluged by shredded office paper during the parade in his honor in Fort Worth. Credits: Fort Worth Star Telegram.

On Dec. 22, the city of Fort Worth, Texas, honored native son Bean, with Conrad, Gordon, and their families joining him for the Alan Bean Day festivities. An estimated 150,000 people lined the streets of the city to welcome Bean and his crewmates, dumping a blizzard of ticker tape and shredded office paper on the astronauts and their families during the parade. City workers cleared an estimated 60 tons of paper from the streets after the event. On New Year’s Day 1970, Conrad, Gordon, and Bean led the 81st annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, as Grand Marshals. Actress June Lockhart, an avid space enthusiast, interviewed them during the TV broadcast of the event.

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Left: Apollo 12 astronaut Gordon riding in one of the Grand Marshal cars in the Rose Parade. Right: Actress Lockhart (at left) interviewing Apollo 12 astronauts (left to right) Conrad, Gordon, and Bean during the Rose Parade. Credits:

As requested by President Nixon during the White House dinner, Conrad, Gordon, and Bean and their wives paid a visit to former President Johnson and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson at their ranch near Fredericksburg, Texas, on Jan. 14, 1970. The astronauts described their mission to the former President and Mrs. Johnson. On Feb. 5, in a ceremony at the Pentagon, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, Chief of Naval Operations, presented Conrad, Gordon, and Bean, all Navy Captains, with Distinguished Service Medals for their accomplishment. In turn, the astronauts presented Adm. Moorer with his personal flag that they carried with them during the moon mission. Eleven days later, the three astronauts, accompanied by their wives and a NASA and State Department entourage, departed Ellington Air Force Base in Houston for a 38-day 20-country around-the-world Presidential goodwill tour, dubbed the “Bullseye World Tour” in honor of the pinpoint landing they made on the Moon.

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Left: Apollo 12 astronauts and their wives visiting former President and Mrs. Johnson at the LBJ Ranch. Right: Apollo 12 astronauts present Adm. Moorer (at left) with his personal flag that they carried on their mission.

The distribution of the Apollo 12 lunar samples to selected investigators began on Jan. 7, 1970, coincident with the First Lunar Science Conference held Jan. 5-8 at the Albert Thomas Convention Center in Houston. While the conference focused on preliminary results from the Apollo 11 samples, some investigators received their first samples from the second landing mission, while others received them by registered mail. In all, scientists received 28.6 pounds of the Apollo 12 samples for investigation, of which they returned 23.7 pounds at the end of the study period, four pounds having been destroyed during the experiments. Managers lifted the quarantine on Jan. 7 on the Surveyor 3 parts returned by the astronauts, allowing scientists to examine them under laboratory conditions for the effects of 31 months on the lunar surface and the impact of the Lunar Module’s descent engine during the approach and landing. NASA published a summary of their findings in 1972.

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Left: Sign welcoming scientists to the Apollo 11 Lunar Science Conference. Right: Scientist examining the Surveyor 3 camera returned by the Apollo 12 astronauts.

Managers released the Apollo 12 Command Module Yankee Clipper from quarantine and shipped it back to its manufacturer, the North American Rockwell plant in Downey, California, on Jan. 12. Engineers there completed a thorough inspection of the spacecraft and eventually prepared it for public display. NASA transferred Yankee Clipper to the Smithsonian Institution in 1973, and today the capsule resides at the Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton, Virginia.

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Left: Apollo 12 Command Module Yankee Clipper arrives at the North American Rockwell facility. Middle: Apollo 12 Command Module Yankee Clipper at NAR in Downey. Right: Yankee Clipper at Virginia Air & Space Center. Credits: National Air and Space Museum.

While the Apollo 12 astronauts continued their post-mission touring, Apollo 11 commander Neil A. Armstrong joined Bob Hope’s USO Christmas tour in late December 1969. Armstrong participated in several shows at venues in Vietnam, Thailand, and Guam, kidding around with Hope and answering questions from the assembled service members. He received standing ovations and spent much time shaking hands with the troops. The USO troupe also visited the hospital ship USS Sanctuary (AH-17) stationed in the South China Sea.

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Left: Armstrong (left) and Hope perform for the troops in Korat, Thailand. Right: Armstrong (in blue flight suit) shakes hands with servicemen in Long Binh, Vietnam.