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Charles 'Pete' Conrad, 3rd Man on Moon, Dies After Motorcycle Crash

Astronauts: The space pioneer succumbs five hours after losing control of his Harley-Davidson on a mountain road near Ojai during an outing with his wife and friends.

July 09, 1999|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT and TRACY WILSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OJAI — Charles "Pete" Conrad, the Apollo 12 astronaut who was the third man to set foot on the moon, died Thursday night after losing control of his motorcycle on a mountain road near Ojai, authorities said.

Conrad, a Huntington Beach resident whose lifelong aerospace career started with NASA in 1962, died at 5:07 p.m. at Ojai Valley Hospital, five hours after crashing his 1996 Harley-Davidson, said James Baroni, a Ventura County deputy county coroner. Conrad was 69.

Doctors who operated on Conrad to find the source of internal bleeding were unable to revive him, Baroni said.

"Initially it did not appear that he had many injuries," Baroni said. "But after he was there [at the hospital] for a while, he started having more difficulty breathing and his blood pressure was dropping."

Conrad's wife, Nancy Conrad, was riding on another motorcycle when the crash occurred, Baroni said. The couple and several friends, also on motorcycles, had been headed north to Monterey. The group planned to stop at Ojai for lunch, Baroni said.

It was not uncommon for Conrad to be riding. In fact, he was a thrill-seeker. In an interview with The Times several years ago, Conrad said he enjoyed "Fast bikes, fast cars and anything that moves."

The crash occurred on a slight grade on California 150 about three miles east of Ojai in an unincorporated area of Ventura County.

Conrad's riding buddies, some of whom were bringing up the rear and came upon him seconds after the crash, said it appeared Conrad was traveling under the posted 55 mph speed limit when he took the turn, Baroni said.

Conrad, who was wearing a helmet and full riding gear, apparently took the turn wide, lost control and flew off the bike onto the pavement, authorities said.

An autopsy is scheduled in Ventura today and funeral arrangements are pending, Baroni said.

Conrad was born June 2, 1930, in Philadelphia.

As a child, he built and flew model airplanes. At 15, he swept up scraps in a airfield machine shop to earn flying lessons. In 1946, at 16, he flew solo for the first time.

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 and met his first wife, Jane DuBose. They 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. It was at Patuxent River that Conrad later said he developed "the killer instinct" of a test pilot. 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 5 flight Aug. 21, 1965. Despite mechanical difficulties, near-aborts and physical discomfort, the flight lasted eight days.

It was the longest manned space flight to that date.

Conrad's next venture into space travel was the three-day Gemini 11 flight Sept. 18, 1966, which he commanded. The Gemini missions kept pushing the frontier, paving the way for Conrad's biggest challenge: The Apollo 12 voyage from Nov. 14 to 24, 1969.

It was on that mission that Conrad and astronaut Alan Bean walked on the dusty lunar surface collecting rocks and conducting experiments. In a 1996 interview with The Times, Conrad recalled looking homeward from the lunar surface: "The Earth resembled a beautiful blue marble suspended against a black velvet blanket." Conrad was later awarded a Space Medal of Honor.

He retired from NASA and the Navy in 1973 to enter the business world. He worked at McDonnell Douglas for 20 years before retiring in 1996.

Friends told The Times in 1996 that Conrad always managed to meld knowledge and articulate conversation with stories and humor. They described him as having a zest for learning and exploring.

Over the years, he was involved in projects to get children interested in space. He published spaceman-oriented comic books featuring "Commander Pete," his cartoon persona.

Conrad once said that he had lost friends, test pilots, who were killed on dangerous missions. But he said in his own life no loss had been more painful than the death of son Christopher in 1990 of bone cancer.

Conrad is survived by his wife, and three grown children: Peter, Thomas, and Andrew.

Wolcott is Times Community News reporter and Wilson is a Times staff writer.

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