There must have been immense pressure on Neil Armstrong when he landed on the moon. Not just about setting the Lunar Module (LM) down safely or walking on the moon’s surface. The whole world was listening. If he tripped over his first words on the lunar surface, it could be a public relations mess. He didn’t. “One small step for man, one giant leap for man kind” has become one of the most recognized and appropriated phrases. For the second mission to land on the moon, Apollo 12, the pressure was less. But the world was still watching. To mark the occasion, Commander Pete Conrad gave the world somewhat less awe-inspired first words. (Left, Conrad on the Moon. November 19, 1969.)
Pete Conrad and Lunar Module Pilot Al Bean touched down on the Moon in the LM Intrepid on November 19, 1969; Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon watched and listened from orbit in the Yankee Clipper. Conrad and Bean went through their post-landing checklist like kids finishing chores so they could go out and play in fresh snow.
As he exited the LM’s hatch and descended the ladder, Conrad was not only thinking about his and Bean’s upcoming moon walk. Before they could start, he would have to commemorate the moment with some quotable phrase that would look good in the history books.
The astronauts weren’t scripted. Conrad figured that Neil Armstrong had been so focussed on the task at hand – like a pilot/engineer/astronaut should be – that he hadn’t given it much thought to his “one small step” line before he reached the final rung of the ladder. (Conrad enjoys breakfast the morning of Apollo 12’s launch. 1969.)
Conrad had thought about what he was going to say. In the wake of Apollo 11’s return, he had attended endless dinners and events honouring Armstrong, Buzz Alrdin, and Michael Collins. At one event, a journalist approached Conrad asking what his first words were going to be. She was clearly of the opinion that NASA had already fed Conrad his soon-to-be historic words.
He told the journalist his first words were up to him, then suggested they make it interesting. “Let’s you and me decide right here and now what I’m gonna say when I set foot on the Moon. It’s on TV real time; I can’t lie to you. If I say it, you owe me five hundred dollars. If I don’t, I owe you.”
They made a deal.
As he made his way down the ladder and the world waited for his words, he made good on his promise. “Whoopee! That may have been a small one for Neil but it’s a long one for me!” At five foot six and a half, Conrad was one of the shortest astronauts but not short of a sense of humour. (Conrad as he descended down the LM’s ladder. 1969.)
He stepped off the LM footpad and on to the surface and described the sensation of walking in the lunar dust. “Ooh! That’s soft! Hey, that’s neat!” No one could doubt that he was having a ball on the moon.
According to his second wife (and author of his biography), Conrad never did get his five hundred dollars.
Nancy Conrad and Howard A. Klausner. Rocketman: Astronaut Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond. Penguin Books: London. 2005.