The astronaut knocked out by his own camera

Have you ever started to think that a certain piece of technology has it in for you?

For Alan Bean, the thought must have crossed his mind.

Bean became just the fourth person to set foot on the Moon when, on 19th November 1969, he jumped down the last few feet from the ladder of Apollo 12‘s lunar module to join Commander Pete Conrad on the surface.

Public interest in the idea of landing on the Moon had faded somewhat since Apollo 11 (which took place just four months before) but was still high enough to warrant coverage on several major TV channels, and so Apollo 12 had brought with it NASA’s first colour television camera.

Half an hour into the first of their two moonwalks, and with the camera beaming back live footage to Houston and to the world, Bean decided he was going to move it in an attempt to get a view of Earth for everyone watching on TV.

Bean makes his way down the ladder of their lunar module | Credit: NASA

Bean began something of a running commentary, with Conrad heard laughing at various things in the background and humming to himself. While moving the camera and trying to find Earth, Bean mutters, “Pointing toward the Sun. That’s bad.”

The effects of Bean’s mistake were immediate.

“Al, we have a pretty bright image on the TV,” CapCom Ed Gibson reported.

Bean fiddled with a few of the settings and, after a brief back-and-forth with Gibson, he asked if the picture had changed at all.

“Still looks the same, Al,” came the reply. “We have a very bright image at the top and blacked out… for about 80 percent of the bottom.”

Although he didn’t realise it at the time, Bean had completely fried the innards of the camera by pointing the lens directly at the Sun.

Video footage of the first of Apollo 12’s camera mishaps. The moment of ‘disaster’ starts at 1:15 in.

Having initially been forced to move on to avoid falling behind in his schedule, half an hour later Bean told Houston he was going to have one last go at mending the camera.

“That’s coming in there, now, Al,” Gibson said a few moments later, to Bean’s pleasant surprise. “Okay, what change did you make?”

“I hit it on the top with my hammer. I figured we didn’t have a thing to lose.”

Bean’s reprieve, however, didn’t last long. The TV image was still extremely poor, and that was that. Bean’s mistake is the reason there is no video footage of him and Conrad on the Moon beyond the first half an hour or so.

Bean’s camera woes didn’t stop there either.

On the last day of their mission, with re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere just a few hours away, Conrad, Bean and Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon ran through a last check-list, ensuring any and every loose item in command module Yankee Clipper was safely stowed away. That included a 16mm Hasselblad camera, attached to a mount somewhere above Bean’s head.

When Yankee Clipper splashed down in the Pacific, it didn’t come down hanging from its parachutes at an angle as planned, something that would have softened the landing somewhat. Instead, it came straight down with all the subtlety of a brick. Jarred by the impact, the Hasselblad camera was shaken loose from its mounting.

It struck Bean on the forehead and knocked him out for a few seconds. When the crew were recovered aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, Bean required six stitches to a cut above his right eyebrow, and doctors would also diagnose him with a mild concussion.

In post-recovery photos aboard the Hornet, taken of the three astronauts sitting inside their quarantine trailer, Bean can be seen sporting a plaster on his forehead.

Credit: NASA | Bean (on the right) can be seen wearing a plaster above his right eyebrow

It certainly wasn’t the most dignified way to end a mission to the Moon, but no lasting damage was done to either Bean or to his career, as he went on to command the second mission to the Skylab space station in 1973. He died in 2018 at the age of 86.

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