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Conrad, Petefree

(02 June 1930–08 July 1999)
  • Roger D. Launius

[left to right] Pete Conrad and L. Gordon Cooper Jr. on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lake Champlain following splashdown and recovery from the ocean.

Courtesy of NASA (GPN-2000-001494).

Conrad, Pete (02 June 1930–08 July 1999), astronaut, was born Charles Peter Conrad in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Charles Conrad, an investment broker, and Frances V. Sargent Conrad. He was called “Pete” from an early age because his mother liked the name. He was educated at the Haverford School in Haverford, Pennsylvania, and received his high school diploma from the Darrow School, New Lebanon, New York, in 1948. Like his father, who had served as a balloonist in World War I, Conrad was intrigued by flying. As a child, he built model airplanes. As a teenager, he hung around local garages and airfields, neglecting his schoolwork. He worked part time sweeping up in a machine shop to finance flying lessons and flew solo when he was sixteen. Encouraged by his father, he entered Princeton University in 1948 and earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering in 1953.

Also in 1953 Conrad married Jane DuBose of Uvalde, Texas, whom he had met at Princeton. They had four sons, one of whom, Christopher, died of bone cancer at the age of 30. Conrad's first marriage ended in divorce in 1990; he then married Nancy Crane of Huntington Beach, California.

Conrad entered the U.S. Navy following his graduation from Princeton and became a naval aviator. In less than a year he went to the navy's test pilot school at Patuxent River, Maryland, and on completing that course of instruction in 1954 he was assigned as a project test pilot to the armaments test division. Although he applied, he was not chosen to be in the first group of American astronauts, the Mercury Seven, formed in 1958–1959. He always believed that he failed because he was too flippant when meeting psychologists who were screening the candidates. He relished telling the story of being asked to describe what he saw when shown a blank white card; his reply being that it was “upside down.” In September 1962, however, he was accepted into the second class of NASA astronauts, who were assigned to Project Gemini. At the time, he was a safety officer with Fighter Squadron 96 at what was then Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, California.

Conrad flew his first space mission aboard Gemini V. Launched on 21 August 1965, he and command pilot L. Gordon Cooper flew 120 revolutions and covered a total distance of 3,312,993 statute miles. Terminated on 29 August 1965, the mission earned Conrad and Cooper space endurance records and enabled the United States to supplant the Soviet Union as leader in total flight hours in space. On 18 September 1966 Conrad flew as command pilot for the Gemini XI mission. In less than one orbit he was able to rendezvous with a previously launched Agena upper stage and practiced rendezvous and docking techniques that were necessary prerequisite steps in reaching the Moon during Project Apollo. He and his close friend Richard F. Gordon, Jr., piloted Gemini XI during extravehicular activity, set a new space altitude record, and completed the first fully automatic controlled reentry.

Pete Conrad on the moon.

Photograph by Alan Bean. Courtesy of NASA. (GPN-2000-001104)

In November 1969 Conrad served as spacecraft commander for Apollo 12, the second lunar landing mission. Again, Richard Gordon was command module pilot, while Alan L. Bean served as lunar module pilot and accompanied Conrad to the Moon's surface. Although Apollo 12 was enormously important in the larger context of the lunar landing program, it has not received the attention it deserves. In July 1969 Apollo 11 had satisfied John F. Kennedy's mandate that the United States be the first to put a human on the Moon. Now the goal was to examine the lunar environment scientifically. Seemingly marked for disaster at the outset—it was struck twice by lightning on the launch pad—the crew of Apollo 12 put in a textbook mission, demonstrating that they could land precisely where they wanted to on the lunar surface. Having guided Intrepid, their lunar module, to the Ocean of Storms, Conrad and Bean spent more than seven hours traversing the moonscape. They collected rocks and set up an Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package to measure the Moon's seismicity, solar wind flux, and magnetic field. They also brought back for analysis pieces of the Surveyor 3 that remained from its landing there more than two years earlier. Meanwhile Gordon, in the loneliest job in the space program, was aboard the Yankee Clipper taking multispectral photographs of the lunar surface. The results were so stunning that the crew stayed in lunar orbit an extra day to take photographs. The data from these scientific activities continue to be analyzed, thus contributing to an emerging understanding of the workings of the universe.

Pete Conrad flew his fourth and final space mission in 1973 as a member of the inaugural crew of Skylab, the orbital workshop that would pave the way for a permanent human presence in space. The 100-ton spacecraft was launched, unmanned, into orbit on 14 May 1973, the last time the giant Saturn V launch vehicle would be used. Vibrations during liftoff almost immediately caused technical problems. Sixty-three seconds after launch, the meteoroid shield—designed also to shade Skylab's workshop from the Sun's rays—ripped off, taking with it one of the two solar panels; another piece wrapped around the other panel to keep it from properly deploying. In spite of this setback, the space station achieved a near-circular orbit at the desired altitude of 270 miles. NASA's mission control personnel maneuvered Skylab so that its Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) solar panels faced the Sun to provide as much electricity as possible, but in the absence of the meteoroid shield this positioning caused workshop temperatures to rise to 126 degrees Fahrenheit.

While NASA technicians worked on a solution to Skylab's problem, Skylab 2, the first mission with astronauts, was postponed. Finally on 25 May 1973 astronauts Conrad, Paul J. Weitz, and Joseph P. Kerwin lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in an Apollo capsule atop a Saturn IB to rendezvous with the orbital workshop. After substantial repairs requiring extravehicular activity (EVA), the workshop was habitable by 4 June. On orbit Conrad and the other two crew members conducted solar astronomy and Earth resources experiments, medical studies, and five student experiments, making three EVAs totaling six hours and twenty minutes. The first group of astronauts returned to Earth on 22 June 1973.

On 1 February 1974 Conrad retired from the U.S. Navy, from which he had been assigned to NASA. During a twenty-year navy and NASA career he had logged more than 6,500 hours flying time, with more than 5,000 hours in high-performance jet aircraft. He had logged forty-nine days, three hours, and thirty-seven minutes in space, a record at the time. He had not only walked on the Moon but had also set what was then a space endurance record of 672 hours and forty-nine minutes on Skylab.

Conrad accepted a position as vice president, operations, and chief operating officer of American Television and Communications Corporation (ATC) in Denver, Colorado. In March 1976 he joined the McDonnell Douglas Corporation in St. Louis, Missouri, as a vice president of international commercial sales; in 1978 he was promoted to vice president and then senior vice president of marketing for the Douglas Aircraft Company. He then became staff vice president and worked on the Delta Clipper launcher project.

In addition to flying his own private plane, Conrad piloted jets owned by his new employers, ATC and McDonnell Douglas. He also remained active in space-related affairs and auto and motorcycle racing, always expressing a love for “fast bikes, fast cars, and anything that moves.” As a spokesperson for space exploration, he often testified on Capitol Hill in favor of opening the space frontier to average Americans and lobbying for space tourism and easier access to Earth orbit. In 1995 Conrad founded the Universal Space Lines and several sister companies with the goal of commercializing space. He intended to go back to space as an entrepreneur, to create inexpensive satellite and rocket launching methods. His fondest wish, he told many people, was to circumvent the governmental spaceflight bureaucracies to return to the Moon.

Conrad was a rare individual who combined a strong sense of duty and camaraderie with a mischievous sense of humor that became legendary at NASA. Small and wiry, he stood a mere five feet six and one half inches and weighed only 135 pounds at the time of his graduation from Princeton. His receding hairline, which later left him virtually bald, and the gap between his two front teeth suggested a comical figure, but he soon proved himself equal to anyone flying spacecraft for NASA in the 1960s. His first words as he stepped onto the Moon captured both the tenor of his humor and his excitement at flying in space. “Whoopee!” he shouted, “That may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me.” Perhaps it was not exactly as memorable as Neil Armstrong's famous phrase—“…one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”—but it expressed better than just about anything the sheer joy and excitement of exploring a foreign world.

While on a trip to Monterey, California, with his wife and friends, on 8 July 1999 Conrad was critically injured in an accident aboard his 1996 Harley Davidson. Near Ojai, California, the motorcycle left the road on a curve and crashed into a drainage culvert, ejecting the rider onto the pavement. Although his condition did not appear serious at first, Conrad later died of internal injuries at a hospital near his home in Huntington Beach, California.

At the time of Conrad's death, President Bill Clinton remarked that the third person to walk on the Moon had been “a man of unusual warmth and spirit … Conrad's excitement at being involved in the Apollo effort was both irrepressible and contagious.” The president added, “Taking his work, but not himself, seriously was Pete's informal motto. Well-known for his boundless energy and love of adventure, Conrad was a natural leader who laid the groundwork for many aspects of NASA's human spaceflight efforts through his work on the Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab programs.”


Sizable biographical files on Conrad are in the NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., and at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Conrad's education has been profiled in Scott White, “Pete Conrad at Princeton,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, 2 Dec. 1969, pp. 8–9. Excellent biographical accounts of Conrad at NASA can be found in Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft, NASA Special Publication-4205 (1979); Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles, NASA SP-4206 (1980); Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (1994); James M. Grimwood and Barton C. Hacker, with Peter J. Vorzimmer, Project Gemini Technology and Operations: A Chronology, NASA SP-4002, (1969); Barton C. Hacker and James M. Grimwood, On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini, NASA SP-4203 (1977); and W. David Compton and Charles D. Benson, Living and Working in Space: A History of Skylab, NASA SP-4208 (1983). For the history of Project Apollo, see especially Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (1985), and Charles A. Murray and Catherine Bly Cox, Apollo: The Race to the Moon (1989). Obituaries are in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space News, and the Washington Post, all 10 July 1999.

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