Lightning Strikes

Scattered rain showers, forerunners of a cold front, marked the approach of Apollo 12's launch day. A broad band of clouds and precipitation, punctuated by numerous thunderstorms, moved into central Florida on Thursday afternoon. By nightfall, the thunderstorms ended and the rain slackened. The next morning, radar displays of precipitation echoes placed the cold front about 80 miles north of the Cape. Despite the weather, large crowds were on hand to watch the liftoff. President and Mrs. Nixon headed the list of 3,000 guests, marking the first and only appearance of a Chief Executive at an Apollo launch. Other names on the VIP list included Vice President Agnew, Henry Kissinger, Roy Disney, Jr. (of Walt Disney Productions), Arnold Palmer, and James Stewart.8

As the space vehicle underwent final preparations, the approaching cold front pushed large banks of clouds toward the Cape. Cold rain drenched the spectators. Up in the command module, Yankee Clipper, Commander Conrad noticed water leaking between the boost protective cover and the spacecraft. He later recalled:

I could see water on my two windows - window 1 and 2. We experienced varying amounts passing across these windows, dependent on how heavily it was raining. These [rain and wind] were the only things noted up to liftoff.9
With a half hour to go, Merritt Island was experiencing peak winds of 14 knots, light rain showers, broken clouds at 240 meters, and overcast skies at 3,000 meters. But the ceiling exceeded the minimum requirement of 150 meters, and the ground winds were within limits. The Apollo design permitted launch during rain. The possibility of lightning concerned Launch Operations Director Kapryan, however, and he considered a hold. As he explained at the postlaunch briefing:

We were within our minimums. . . . The only consideration as far as launching under what apparently are adverse conditions - they are really twofold. Number 1, we would not launch into a thundercloud; number 2, we would not launch when we had lightning in the system. There was some concern. We had very unpredictable weather predictions. The weather was deteriorating. . . .10

A weather report from the Eastern Test Range helped Kapryan make up his mind. An Air Force plane reported only mild turbulence and no indication of lightning within 32 kilometers of LC-39. Air Force 1, bringing the President to the launch, experienced no turbulence while flying through the front. Astronauts Slayton and Stafford told Kapryan the weather was satisfactory. The launch operations director also had to weigh a "now or scrub" situation: the liquid oxygen replenish pump had failed at T-1 hour and 22 minutes, and everything depended on a backup pump. With the launch rules and available evidence giving him an affirmative, Kapryan opted for an 11:22 a.m.* launch.11

Apollo 12 lifted off on schedule. Thirty-six seconds later, as the space vehicle reached 2,000 meters, spectators observed two parallel streaks of lightning flash toward the launch pad. The Yankee Clipper experienced a power failure. As Conrad later recalled:

I was aware of a white light. I knew that we were in the clouds; and although I was watching the gauges I was aware of a white light. The next thing I noted was that I heard the master alarm ringing in my ears and I glanced over to the caution and warning panel and it was a sight to behold.12
The spacecraft sustained a second lightning discharge 16 seconds later at an altitude of 4,400 meters. Conrad reported to Mission Control: "We just lost the [stabilizing] platform, gang: I don't know what happened here; we had everything in the world drop out."13 Fortunately, the spacecraft automatically switched to a backup power source, and the astronauts soon restored primary power.

That Apollo 12 had been hit by lightning was a matter of dispute for some time. At the postlaunch briefing, one hour after liftoff, reporters asked Stafford, Apollo 10 commander, and Kapryan about reports of lightning. Stafford dismissed the reports as only speculation. Kapryan said, "I think we're pretty certain that it was not lightning. If the vehicle had been struck by lightning the damage would have been quite severe rather than a momentary dropout." When reporters pressed the matter, Stafford and Kapryan responded that NASA had quite a few people watching after liftoff and no one reported a sighting. Subsequently, the lightning reports from numerous viewers were substantiated by space vehicle data and KSC cameras.14

President Nixon chose not to mention the incident in his postlaunch remarks at the launch control center. He commented on the "great experience and awe" of an Apollo launch. He repeated the remarks made to him by astronauts "that those on the ground, the engineers, and the technicians, and the scientists, and all of those who work in the program, that they are really the heart of this great, successful experience for the American people and for all the people of the world."15 Nixon promised to keep the United States first in space.

After the unnerving lightning incident, the mission moved smoothly. Apollo 12 went into earth orbit 11 minutes and 43 seconds after liftoff. By 2:15 p.m., it had accelerated to 38,000 kilometers an hour and was headed for the moon. There was a significant change in the trajectory. Three earlier Apollos flew a course that permitted looping the moon and returning to earth if the spacecraft failed to attain lunar orbit. Apollo 12, by a midcourse maneuver, entered a trajectory that did not allow free return. This was necessary to reach the desired landing site.

On 19 November 1969, Conrad and Bean landed in the Ocean of Storms, within 180 meters of the unmanned Surveyor 3 that had been there for two years. The two astronauts spent 7 hours and 45 minutes on the lunar surface, setting up scientific instruments, collecting pieces from the Surveyor, gathering materials, and photographing the landing craft, the Surveyor, and other objects of interest. They lifted off on the morning of 20 November and splashed down in the South Pacific on 24 November.16

With plans afoot for a world tour, the crew first returned to KSC on 17 December for a reunion with the launch team. Debus led them into the transfer aisle of the vehicle assembly building as a Navy band played "Anchors Aweigh" and 8,000 members of the government-industry team applauded. He complimented the crew on leaving as commanders and returning as U.S. Navy captains.

"The crew didn't consider the flight over until we got back here," Conrad said. "We forgive the weather man for his job, but had we to do it again, I'd launch exactly under the same conditions." Gordon pointed out that

the real guts of these flights, after their formative, opening stages, are really put together here. The hardware is brought here, it's mated here in the VAB, and a great amount of testing is done. But more importantly, the crew is here most of the months before launch. And this is really the way it ought to be. This is really our home.17

The astronauts received enlarged color photographs of the Apollo 12 liftoff, plus a stone from the crawlerway over which their vehicle began its journey. Then they walked through cheering crowds along the transfer aisle, exchanging handshakes and signing autographs. They lunched with the KSC Management Council and contractor managers where they regaled the party with some lighthearted comments about their achievement. The astronauts were presented with such trinkets as whiskbrooms to remove lunar dust, tiny parasols to ward off the intense sunlight on the moon, and joke books to while away the time on lunar journeys. It was a happy family reunion.18

* After the launch some newspapers suggested that President Nixon's presence influenced Kapryan's decision. The launch director denied it.

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