Pete Conrad: Lunar Astronaut

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Pete Conrad was a naval fighter pilot and astronaut most well-known for being the third person to walk on the Moon.

Pete Conrad

Conrad was born on June 2, 1930, in Philadelphia. His father was named Charles and wanted his son to be named after him, in opposition to his mother, who wanted to call her son Peter. His birth certificate read "Charles Conrad, Jr.," but his mother and nearly everyone else who knew him called him Pete.

A bright student, Conrad struggled with dyslexia, a condition that was little understood at the time. He went to a private academy in Haverford, Pa., but failed most of his examinations in 11th grade and found himself expelled. He switched to attending Darrow School in New Lebanon, N.Y., and found a way to overcome his dyslexia to complete his studies. He graduated in 1949 and was admitted to Princeton.

He was mechanically minded as well and had single-handedly repaired a flight instructor's airplane when he was 16. He had his pilot's certificate before he left high school.

Conrad earned a bachelor of science in aeronautical engineering from Princeton in 1953. Also enrolled in the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC), he got a commission as an ensign in the Navy. He trained at air stations in Pensacola, Fla., and Corpus Christi, Texas, and served as a fighter pilot aboard an aircraft carrier for a time. Admitted to the Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent, Md., he graduated from there in 1958 and earned a commission as naval captain in 1969.

He showed a bit of a contrary streak when first taking part in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)'s astronaut selection program and was not among those chosen for Project Mercury. At the urging of Mercury veteran and first American in space Alan Shepard, Conrad reapplied to be an astronaut and was accepted for Project Gemini. As the pilot of Gemini 5, he spent nearly eight days in space, setting a new space endurance record, along with crewmate Gordon Cooper. As Commander of Gemini 11, he completed a vital docking test with an Agena target vehicle; his crewmate on the mission was his future Apollo 12 crewmate Dick Gordon.

Conrad served as backup commander for Apollo 9, the low-Earth-orbit mission that tested nearly all of the systems that the Apollo 11 crew would need in order to walk on the Moon. Once that crew had achieved their goals and returned to Earth, it was time for Conrad, too, to make history.

Apollo 12 crew

Along with Gordon (right, center) and Alan Bean (right, right), Conrad (right left) blasted off aboard Apollo 12 on Nov. 14, 1969. After a brief brush with lightning, the crew existed Earth orbit and set course for the Moon. They arrived five days later and Conrad became the third person to step onto the Moon.

Pete Conrad on the Moon

Showing his sense of humor, the words he uttered after setting foot on the lunar surface were, "Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me." Conrad was one of the shortest of all the astronauts, at 5 feet, 6.5 inches. He was referencing the famous first words of Neil Armstrong, who, touching down with his first step on the Moon, said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Conrad and Bean spent nearly eight hours on the lunar surface, during two separate moonwalks. They set up experiments, gathered Moon dust and rocks, and took photos of not only themselves but also the lunar surface. They made a successful rendezvous with Gordon aboard the Command Module and returned safely to Earth.

Conrad went on to be Commander of Skylab 2, the first crew aboard the space station of the same name. During two spacewalks, they repaired damage done to the space station by a wayward meteorite and also deployed a solar shield.

Among his famous quotes was his trademark phrase, "If you can't be good, be colorful." He also deployed a wry sense of humor after returning to Earth after his Skylab mission: When introduced to then-President Richard Nixon and then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Conrad, eschewing the face mask that he was supposed to wear after being in space, quipped, "If we catch a cold, it will be an honor to catch a cold from you two gentlemen."

Pete Conrad

Retiring from both the Navy and NASA in 1973, Conrad joined the private sector, as an executive at the American Television and Communications Company. Three years later, he joined McDonnell Douglas as a consultant and vice president remained with the company for several years.

Conrad was part of the crew of a Learjet that broke the round-the-world flight time record in 1996. He also started three aerospace companies: Rocket Development, which built reusable spaceships; Universal Space Lines, which aimed to launch them; and Universal Spacenet, which was tasked with tracking them.

He made two notable television appearances, playing himself both times, in the 1975 TV movie Stowaway to the Moon and in the 1991 TV movie Plymouth.

Pete Conrad died on July 8, 1999, as a result of injuries he sustained in a motorcycle crash. He was buried a Arlington National Cemetery. He had married twice and had four sons.

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