What happened when Apollo 12 was struck by lightning… twice

All things considered, it was pretty ironic that Apollo 12 was headed for an area of the Moon known as the Ocean of Storms.

When all-Navy astronauts Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Alan Bean launched on the morning of 14 November 1969, they did so in the driving rain and in some of the strongest winds recorded during the entire Apollo programme.

Despite this less-than-ideal weather, the moment of lift-off was a smooth one.

“It’s a lovely lift-off,” Conrad reported. “It’s not bad at all.”

Famous last words.

L-R: Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon, Alan Bean | Credit: NASA

36 seconds into the flight, a bright but brief flash illuminated the inside of the command module, and the astronauts’ headsets filled with static.

“What the hell was that?” Gordon exclaimed.

Warning lights lit up the instrument panel in front of the crew like a Christmas tree and alarms started blaring, more than they had seen or heard in any of their training.

14 seconds later, there was a second bright flash. Even more lights and alarms came on and the 8-ball started spinning aimlessly, indicating that the ‘guidance platform’ – the system used by the command module to tell which direction it was pointing in – was out of commission.

“Okay, we just lost the platform, gang,” Conrad reported to Mission Control. “I don’t know what happened here, we had everything in the world drop out.”

Apollo 12 launches into thundery skies | Credit: NASA

Back in Houston, the read-outs on the screen of 24-year-old Electrical, Environmental, and Consumables Manager (EECOM) John Aaron turned into scrambled nonsense. With his telemetry needed to find out what had gone wrong with Apollo 12, it was vital Aaron came up with a way to restore it. In a huge stroke of luck, he recognised the pattern in the garbled data from a simulation that had been run during training. He immediately reported what he believed to be the correct solution to Gerry Griffin, the flight director.

“Flight, try SCE to aux.”

It was such an obscure solution that Griffin had never heard of it before, but he trusted Aaron’s instincts and gave the go ahead for Jerry Carr, the CapCom in charge of communicating with the astronauts, to pass it on.

Carr hadn’t heard of it either, but he dutifully radioed the crew. “Apollo 12, Houston. Try SCE to auxiliary.”

Pete Conrad was just as confused as Griffin and Carr, mishearing what Carr said. “Try FCE to auxiliary? What the hell is that?”

SCE,” Carr corrected. “SCE to auxiliary.”

It was a single switch in the command module that needed to be flipped in order to transfer the ‘Signal Conditioning Equipment’ – which converted raw sensor data into data that could be displayed on the instrument panels – from its primary mode to its backup mode.

Personnel in the Launch Control Centre at Cape Kennedy listen to the crew of Apollo 12 and to Mission Control in Houston try and sort out their problems | Credit: NASA

Luckily, like John Aaron, Alan Bean remembered it from a training simulation and was able to locate it amongst the hundreds of other switches and flip it. Aaron’s telemetry was duly restored, which indicated that Apollo 12’s three fuel cells had been thrown offline.

The fuel cells were what provided the command module with electrical power. With them not working, Apollo 12 was running on battery power only. The batteries were reserved solely for use during re-entry, meaning that unless a fix could be found Apollo 12 would have to be aborted before it had really even begun.

Jerry Carr radioed the crew and told them to try and reset the fuel cells, a job that again fell to Bean. After the first stage of the Saturn V rocket was jettisoned and the second stage was ignited, Bean reached up and flipped the relevant switches. Much to everyone’s relief, the fuel cells flickered back into life seemingly no worse for wear.

“I don’t know what happened,” a disbelieving Conrad said to Mission Control, “I’m not sure we didn’t get hit by lightning.”

He had hit the nail on the head.

Apollo 12’s launch tower is silhouetted against a lightning bolt | Credit:NASA

The two bright flashes of light observed by the crew had been two separate bolts of lightning.

The metal body and exhaust contrail of their Saturn V rocket had turned into what Conrad later labelled ‘the longest lightning rod in history’. Observers reported that they had seen the lightning hit the rocket and travel all the way down the exhaust plume to the ground, where they struck the launch tower.

The whole incident had lasted no more than two and a half minutes from the moment of the first strike to the successful rebooting of the fuel cells, but it must have seemed like a lifetime. The three astronauts were nonetheless able to view it with their trade-mark good humour.

“Phew! Man alive!” Conrad exclaimed.

“There were so many lights up there, I couldn’t even read them all!” Gordon added.

Conrad, Gordon and Bean pretty much laughed the rest of the way into orbit, which they reached just eleven and a half minutes after launch. They checked out their command module’s systems and were able to re-align the guidance platform, ensuring that they would safely be able to navigate to the Moon and back and successfully complete their mission.

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