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Apollo 12, "Kind of a Rough Start..."

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Apollo 12, "Kind of a Rough Start..." (2019)

The adventure begins. Only thirty-five seconds into their mission to the Moon, the Apollo 12 crew was confronted with numerous warning indicators suddenly flashing on the spacecraft instrument panel, signaling multiple system failures. Most critical of these indicated a significant drop in output from the fuel cells, which supplied electrical power to the spacecraft. Twenty seconds later, just as abruptly, the lights went dark. At the same time, engineers back at Mission Control were getting only garbled telemetry signals from Apollo on their monitors. No one knew what was happening.

Neither the astronauts nor Mission Control immediately realized that Apollo was struck by lightning--twice within the span of twenty seconds. The 365-foot Saturn 5 launch vehicle acted as a giant lightning rod, inducing the strikes as it passed electrically charged clouds.

In the spacecraft, Mission Commander Pete Conrad reached for the abort handle which would jettison the Command Module and crew from the launch vehicle in the event of a catastrophic failure. With the time window for this last-resort action closing rapidly, Conrad patiently kept his cool while he, his crew-mates and Mission Control "worked the problem". Back in Houston engineers, deprived of the telemetry needed to even identify the problem, let alone correct it, were trapped in a uncharacteristic state of indecision.

However, one of them saw something vaguely familiar in the "squirrelly numbers" (his words) displayed on his monitor. John Aaron, a 24-year-old electrical engineer, recalled a situation that arose during a flight simulation a year earlier. At that time, a similar voltage drop occurred (an inadvertent technical glitch then...no lightning strike). The problem was identified and fixed during the simulation. Somehow remembering the remedy arrived at a year earlier, Aaron suggested to the Flight Director "Try SCE to AUX", an operation so obscure that no one seemed to have heard of it.

With the instruction relayed to the crew, a simple flip of a switch connected the Signal Conditioning Equipment to the auxiliary power supply which temporarily restored the spacecraft instrument panel as well as telemetry to Houston. The fuel cells, disabled by the lightning, could then be re-booted. Once in Earth orbit, and with telemetry re-established, a damage check pronounced the spacecraft fit and Apollo went on to complete a successful mission.

One highly unlikely event--the double lightning strike--caused a potentially catastrophic situation that was ultimately resolved by a series of other unlikely events: the unplanned, unintended voltage drop during that simulation a year earlier, that John Aaron was present for that particular simulation as well as on duty for the Apollo 12 launch itself and, finally, that Aaron would even remember the corrective action taken during the simulation. His extraordinary recall and quick thinking saved the mission and quite possibly the entire Moon program and three lives.

Copyright, 2019 James Hervat

References: Analysis of Apollo 12 Lightning Incident, R. Godfrey, et al, NASA. "How Curiosity, Luck, and the Flip of a Switch Saved the Moon Program", Alex Pasternack.


Apollo 12 detail image.



NOTE: the watermarks seen on the above images do not appear on the prints.

High-quality reproductions of all the artwork in this gallery are available from my secure Print Store. They are offered in a range of sizes, printed on paper, canvas or other print substrates. Prints can be ordered unframed or you can choose from a selection of framing and matting options. Orders are usually shipped in 2-3 business days and come with a 30-day satisfaction guarantee return policy. Please see the PRINTS page for more information and a link to the Print Store.


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