Science & Technology

The Apollo 12 Rocket Was Hit By Lightning — And Survived

It was 49 years ago today that three astronauts and NASA got a huge scare. As their Saturn V rocket made a majestic liftoff towards the moon, it got a dose of earthly reality: lighting hit the rocket and tripped almost every circuit breaker in the crew's spacecraft. Spoiler alert: Apollo 12 made it safely to the moon and back, but it was a tough few minutes for everyone involved in the mission.

What Happened?

NASA has a bunch of flight rules concerning when you can fly spacecraft and when you can't, and of course, the agency takes the weather into account. (Just ask anybody who waited out a delayed space shuttle launch date because of low cloud cover.) But in the 1960s, they were just learning this stuff, which is why Apollo 12 launched on November 14, 1969, amid stormy weather — and became a perfect lightning attractor.

A few minutes after launch came a flash, followed by a series of bad reports from the crew. "I don't know what happened here. We had everything in the world drop out," said commander Pete Conrad from the spacecraft. He read out a long list of warnings from fuel cells and electrical systems. Quickly, the crew and NASA came to the conclusion it had to have been lightning, especially because Conrad saw a white light just before everything went funky.

Fortunately, everything turned out okay. The Saturn V was still flying, which gave the crew and Mission Control time to fix the problem. They quickly got the spacecraft back online. There was no permanent damage, according to the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. Finally, the crew was cleared for their landing on the moon — only the second-ever performed by humans.

Moon Trials

Conrad landed the Apollo 12 craft on November 18, close to the target in the Ocean of Storms. The crew then picked up samples from a robotic lander named Surveyor 3 to learn more about how the moon's environment degrades spacecraft materials over time.

It was a mission full of scientific success, especially because the crew set up their intended science packages and trundled home more than 75 pounds (35 kilograms) of moon rocks. They, unfortunately, had another technical malfunction when Alan Bean accidentally fried the TV camera after pointing it toward the sun, but otherwise, the mission went fairly smoothly. NASA, being NASA, later produced an accident report on the lightning strike filled with causes and points for improvement.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo crewed flight, and next year (2019) is the anniversary of the first moon landing. You can learn more about the Apollo 50th anniversary at the NASA website.

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Learn more about the dramatic launches of the Space Race in "Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond" by Gene Kranz. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Elizabeth Howell November 14, 2018

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