How Pete Conrad’s first words on the Moon won a bet

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The eyes of hundreds of millions of people across the world were fixed on Neil Armstrong as he took humankind’s first steps on another celestial body. The words he uttered have rightfully gone down in history.

Many people expected something similarly poetic and historic to be said by the commander of Apollo 12, but insiders were bracing themselves for something – and someone – completely different.

Pete Conrad may have been NASA’s first Ivy League-educated astronaut with a degree in aeronautical engineering from Princeton University to his name, and while he could turn on the PR charm when necessary, he wasn’t exactly the easiest person to predict.

Where Neil Armstrong was more reflective and reserved, Conrad was about as extroverted and flamboyant as it was possible to get in a person. He was the smallest person in the astronaut corp at just a shade over five feet six inches, but had one of the biggest personalities, known for his frequent foul language, wise-cracks and love of a good practical joke.

In his autobiography, Apollo 11’s Mike Collins described Conrad as ‘funny, noisy, colourful, cool, competent; snazzy-dresser, race-car driver… Should play Pete Conrad in a Pete Conrad movie’.

Conrad even had a giant baseball cap specially made before Apollo 12, one that would fit over the helmet of his spacesuit and could be worn while he was on the Moon. But because it was so big, Conrad knew there was no way he’d be able to smuggle it on board, and so the idea fell by the wayside.

Conrad suits up prior to his first spaceflight, Gemini 5 | Credit: NASA

A few months prior to Apollo 12’s launch, Conrad met with Italian journalist Oriana Fallici. Fallici was not convinced that Armstrong’s first words on the Moon had actually been his, and believed they had been written for him by a scriptwriter of sorts within NASA.

Conrad, never one to back down from a perceived challenge, set out to prove Fallici wrong. He laid out the words he would say when he first set foot on the Moon. If he did indeed say those words, Fallici owed him $500 (roughly the equivalent of $3,500 today). If he didn’t, then Conrad would pay up.

Fast-forward to 19th November 1969, Conrad made the first pinpoint landing of the Apollo series when he touched down in the Ocean of Storms just a few hundred yards from his target, with Alan Bean as his lunar module pilot.

Conrad descended down the ladder, and made the last drop of a few feet to land on the pad of the lunar module.

With the ears of the world listening, Conrad opened his mouth. What came out was his personality in a nutshell. “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil but that’s a long one for me!”

As if that wasn’t enough to convince everyone that Apollo 12 was by no means going to be as formal as Apollo 11, upon stepping off the foot of the lunar module and onto the lunar surface proper, he exclaimed, “Ooo, is that soft and queasy. Hey, that’s neat!”

Poetic and historic this was not!

Conrad had kept his end of the bargain, and he and Alan Bean laughed and giggled their way through almost eight hours of EVAs in a mission that had a completely different atmosphere to that of Apollo 11 (and included a few mishaps with cameras).

Oriana Fallici never did pay Conrad his $500.

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