Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad and lunar module pilot Alan Bean had perhaps the most colourful wrist checklists of any crew. The checklists served as cheat sheets; astronauts referred to these small booklets attached to their lunar EVA suits to make sure they didn’t miss anything during their sojourns on the surface. In Bean’s case, he only missed one item: a prank so subtle that he didn’t see it for 30 years.
During their second and final EVA, Conrad and Bean’s main task was to walk the 524 feet from their lunar module Intrepid to the Surveyor spacecraft that had landed three years prior. The astronauts were charged with recovering certain pieces of Surveyor’s hardware. Among the list was the TV camera and its associated electrical cables, the sample scoop, and two pieces of aluminum tubing. NASA scientists wanted to study and analyze these pieces to see how they had been affected by three years of exposure to the lunar surface environment.
Before heading over to Surveyor, Conrad and Bean took a soil sample about 50 feet away from Intrepid. It was a contingency sample. In case an emergency forced them back into the LM ahead of schedule and cut their EVA short, they would have something to show for their time on the surface.
With the sample stored, the astronauts began their traverse to Surveyor. This activity coincided with the 17th page of Bean’s wrist checklist. The page featured a list of bonus comments, things for Bean to look for as he hopped across the Moon: surface irregularities, boot interactions and adhesions, and the dynamics of loose material. The last item listed read “color/albeano variations of disturbed and undisturbed,” referring to the soil.
Normally, that last item would read “color/albedo variations,” albedo referring to the reflectivity of lunar soil. “Beano” was the nickname Conrad and others used to address Bean. The Apollo 12 support team used that modified geological term in training “to pull Al’s chain,” as the mission’s CapCom Ed Gibson described it.
It’s possible, as Gibson assumed happened, that Bean was so focused on his surface operations that the wordplay slipped right by him; he didn’t mention it during the mission and only noticed the spelling after a family friend pointed it out to him 30 years after the mission.
Or, it’s possible Bean was distracted by the playmate on page 18 of his checklist.
Nancy Conrad and Howard A. Klausner. Rocketman: Astronaut Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond. Penguin Books: London. 2005.