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Apollo Astronaut Dies After Crash Near Ojai

Accident: Charles Conrad, third man to walk on the moon, succumbs five hours after losing control of motorcycle on a mountain road.

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

OJAI — Charles "Pete" Conrad, the Apollo XII 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 while traveling with his wife and several friends, authorities said.

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

Doctors were operating on Conrad to locate the source of internal bleeding and were unable to revive him, Baroni said. Conrad was 69.

"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. She was in the hospital's waiting room when she received word of her husband's death, he said.

Several friends who were also on motorcycles and headed north to Monterey with the Conrads were also gathered at the hospital, Baroni said.

At the time of the crash, they were driving toward Ojai where they planned to stop for lunch, Baroni said. They were traveling with a car that was pulling a trailer filled with motorcycle parts and equipment in the event any of the riders had mechanical problems.

It was not uncommon for Conrad to be riding. In fact, he fancied himself 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 California 150, about three miles east of Ojai in an unincorporated area of Ventura County.

The group was traveling north on the highway from Santa Paula when Conrad lost control of his motorcycle on a slight bend in an area known as the Dennison Grade, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Conrad's riding companions--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 riding gear, apparently took the turn wide, lost control of the motorcycle 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 age 15 he swept up scraps in an airfield machine shop to earn flying lessons. In 1946, at age 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. He met his first wife, Jane DuBose, at Princeton. 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 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 on the Gemini V flight launched on 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 XI flight on Sept. 18, 1966, a mission he commanded. The Gemini missions kept pushing the frontier, paving the way for Conrad's biggest challenge: the Apollo XII voyage from Nov. 14-24, 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 congressional Space Medal of Honor.

Conrad 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 he had lost friends, test pilots who were killed on 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, Nancy, and three adult children: Peter, Thomas and Andrew.

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

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