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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Lunar Rover

Having conquered the moon in 1969, Apollo XII astronaut Charles 'Pete' Conrad of Huntington Beach is ready to take on the world--in 48 hours, in a light business class jet.

February 11, 1996|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"This vehicle offers the potential to send packages from New York to Paris in a mere 45 minutes and medical materials from California to China in 40 minutes," he says. "The Delta Clipper is the first launch vehicle I've seen that will really allow us to go in and out of space routinely and economically. That's exciting."

*

The son of Charles Conrad, a World War I balloonist, and Frances Conrad, a market researcher, Charles Conrad Jr. was born June 2, 1930, in Philadelphia.

He was not one to look skyward and dream of space travel but says he's always had a love affair with planes.

"I never wanted to be an astronaut, but I wanted to fly from the time I could think."

As a kid, he built and flew model airplanes with pals, walked to grade school through the underground storm drains, and explored anything and everything that piqued his curiosity.

"When we used to fly those model airplanes, I always wondered why mine always crashed and his didn't," Rush recalls with a laugh. "Now I know why."

At 15, three years after his parents divorced, Conrad began earning the wings that would fly him to the moon. He worked at a nearby airfield that had been closed during the war, sweeping up scraps in a machine shop there to earn flying lessons. In May 1946, the war was over, the airfield was reopened, and Conrad flew solo for the first time at 16.

"It was a big occasion. I flew out of Westchester Airport," he recalls, leafing though the log he used to record his flight time during those days. "You fly from the back seat, and when you fly solo, there's no one in front of you. I remember it well."

There were other winged expeditions during his teen-age years, however, that Conrad didn't make special note of it in his little black flight log.

But Rush did.

"I remember he was just a kid when he landed his plane on the front lawn at a potential girlfriend's house," Rush said. "Not a model plane, I mean a real plane--a cloth-covered Piper Cub. Her father wasn't too happy about it."

Conrad admits to his share of side adventures in his youth.

"You could say that I didn't apply myself, and I was a year behind," he says, "but we had a lot of fun."

Conrad spent two years at the Darrow School in New Lebanon, N.Y., before attending Princeton University, where he graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering.

At Princeton, he met his first wife, Jane DuBose, who attended nearby Bryn Mawr College. They married in 1953 and raised four sons before divorcing in 1990.

After college, he joined the Navy, became an aviator and attended the Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md., where he served as a test pilot, flight instructor and performance engineer.

"Test pilots are nice, quiet, ordinary folks," Conrad quips, "with a killer instinct."

Conrad's career in space began when NASA selected him as part of its second astronaut class in 1962.

He and Cmdr. L. Gordon Cooper were launched on the Gemini V flight Aug. 21, 1965. Despite several mechanical difficulties, near-aborts of the mission and severe physical discomfort, the flight lasted eight days.

It was the longest manned space flight to that date. "It was like eight days in a garbage can," Conrad remembers.

The next space travel for Conrad was the three-day Gemini XI flight Sept. 18, 1966. Conrad commanded that mission, where he caught and linked up with an Agena satellite, using the Agena engine to rocket to an altitude of 850 miles--another record at the time. His pilot, Dick Gordon, took a space walk.

The Gemini missions kept pushing the frontier, paving the way for Conrad's biggest challenge: The Apollo XII voyage from Nov. 14 to Nov. 24, 1969.

As it turns out, his first decision as commander came shortly after liftoff, when the Saturn V rocket was struck by lightning. The entire electrical system went out, and Conrad had to decide whether to abort the mission. His voice, he recalls, went up about 10 octaves.

"But it was best to just sit back and see what was going on. I decided we should wait to see what happened instead of making any rash decisions."

With that uncertain beginning, the second Apollo moon team successfully rocketed to its destination.

Conrad and astronaut Alan Bean walked on the dusty lunar surface collecting rocks and conducting experiments while Gordon orbited in the command module.

"He was always a confident commander who was way ahead of what's going on," Bean says. "Some other astronauts had more fame than he received, but internally, there was no astronaut more influential than Pete Conrad."

Conrad still remembers looking homeward from the lunar surface.

"The Earth resembled a beautiful blue marble suspended against a black velvet blanket," Conrad recalls. "From this perspective, I couldn't help but sense the fragility of this planet."

*

Throughout the years, Conrad has seen fellow astronauts and test pilots lose their lives.

No loss, though, has been tougher than the death of son Christopher, who was 29 when he died of bone cancer in 1990.

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