The journey was just as perilous. But the second American moon landing was less dramatic than the first, and there’s no better example of the change in mood than what the mission’s commander said as he stepped out onto the surface: “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”
That was Pete Conrad, the Neil Armstrong of Apollo 12. Conrad was indeed shorter than Armstrong, but the astronaut was trying to make a point. Back on Earth, a reporter had suggested that NASA told astronauts what to say, and Conrad was determined to prove her wrong.
Conrad could get away with this only because Apollo 12 was a sequel. The United States had pulled off the impossible feat four months earlier. The mission had been a massive success, and its crew members were deemed heroes.
Space travel was still a dangerous enterprise, with safety paramount, but fewer people were watching—literally, as the Apollo 12 crew had destroyed their color camera when Alan Bean accidentally pointed it at the sun. Everyone back on Earth could follow only the audio of their adventures. (The networks ended up switching to actors in spacesuits or marionettes simulating the moonwalks in studios, a peculiar decision that cost them viewers in the moment and fueled conspiracy theories about the veracity of moon landings for years to come.)
The mishap stung, but it was not catastrophic. Conrad and his crewmates Bean and Dick Gordon weren’t poised to become household names. They were under considerably less pressure, and that created a little more tolerance for error—and fun. Whoopee!
The Apollo 12 crew launched from Cape Canaveral on a rainy day, November 14, 1969. Trouble struck seconds into the flight, when warning lights lit up the inside of the crew capsule. The rocket had been struck by lightning—twice—and the capsule’s electrical systems had failed. But the rocket kept climbing, and flight controllers managed to quickly guide the astronauts to restoring the systems.
The mission unfolded smoothly from there, and displays of playfulness started sneaking in. Sure, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had bounced around the lunar surface with glee, but Conrad and Bean could moonwalk without the weight of a nation on their shoulders. “You know what I feel like, Al?” Conrad said to Bean at one point. “What?” Bean replied. “Did you ever see those pictures of giraffes running in slow motion?” Conrad said. “That’s exactly what I feel like.”
The Apollo 11 astronauts had ventured out for less than three hours, long enough to collect some rocks, stick a flag into the dust, and call the president. Conrad and Bean made two trips outside their lander, spending nearly eight hours exploring the surface, even visiting a spacecraft that NASA had landed nearby two years earlier. “The high-spirited, exuberant Apollo 12 lunar excursions were a welcome contrast to the formal, tension-filled Apollo 11 lunar walk,” says Hamish Lindsay, who oversaw transmissions during the Apollo program from Honeysuckle Creek, a NASA tracking station in Australia. Lindsay wrote that the astronauts “entertained us as they whooped, hummed, joked, and rollicked around, already quite at home in this alien new environment.”
The merry tone came from the personalities of the sequel’s cast. Armstrong was, in public, reserved and stoic, but Conrad was known for his free-spiritedness, exemplified by his random bouts of dancing. Bean called everyone “babe.” The Apollo 12 transcript is full of swearing too NSFW to include here, including a surprisingly crude reference to a porcupine. “If you can’t be good, be colorful” was Conrad’s motto—a worthy tagline for round two.
It is difficult to imagine, for instance, that colleagues would have pranked 11’s crew as they did 12’s. During moonwalks, the astronauts wore little books on their wrists, full of instructions for their activities. When they flipped through the pages, they came across pictures of topless women. The mission’s backup astronauts had sneaked several photos of well-known Playboy models into the instructions, apparently without NASA’s knowledge.
The joke—which certainly wouldn’t fly today—wasn’t discovered until years later. “We didn’t say anything on the air,” Bean later told Charles Fishman, the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon. “We thought some people back on Earth might become upset if they found out we had Playboy playmates in our checklists. They would have said, ‘This is where our tax money is going?’”
When the moonwalkers blasted off, ready to reunite with Gordon and the command module in orbit for their trip home, Conrad let Bean take the controls of the lander. Like the rest of the astronaut corps at the time, Bean was an experienced pilot, but it was Conrad’s job as commander to fly the spacecraft.
“I said, ‘The people in Mission Control aren’t going to like this.’ They would notice the thrusters were firing, and they would be wondering why they were firing, and they could also tell it was my hand controller. They might think there was a failure,” Bean told Hamish in an interview. “Pete said, ‘Well, we’re over on the backside of the moon, they won’t know a thing about it.’”
NASA sent five more missions to the moon after Apollo 12. These trips garnered less public interest, with the exception of Apollo 13, during which the crew famously discovered that “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Like most Apollo astronauts, Conrad, Bean, and Gordon visited the moon only once. Conrad died in a motorcycle accident in 1999. Gordon and Bean died in 2017 and 2018, respectively, in their late 80s. Of the 12 men who have walked on the moon, four are still alive. As the world marks the 50th anniversaries of the other missions, the stories will be told by those who remain, and in troves of transcripts and crackly footage. And there’s plenty of footage; after Apollo 12, astronauts handled the cameras a little more carefully.