SOMETIMES, IT’S THE LITTLEST things that seem to stick with me.
So it was Sunday morning at church when our final hymn was one that even people who don’t go to church probably know — Amazing Grace.
It’s a great hymn that is memorable for a great many reasons, but whenever I hear Amazing Grace, I can’t help but think of Pete Conrad.
Don’t know who Pete Conrad is? Not a lot of people do these days, but Charles ‘Pete” Conrad Jr. was a Navy Captain, an aviator, an astronaut, and most famously, the third man to walk on the moon as the Commander of Apollo 12 .
Early astronauts were the rock stars of their time
Younger people like my Millennial-age children don’t really get this, but astronauts were the rock stars of my generation. Every space launch was a big deal when I was growing up, and I followed them intently.
But for those who remember those times, you also remember that it wasn’t easy.
The movie version of Tom Wolfe’s marvelous book, The Right Stuff , chronicled the challenges facing the first American astronauts, the famous Mercury 7. It wonderfully captures the feeling back then that most of America thought that these guys were something special. Seemingly overnight, men like John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, and Gus Grissom became household names.
The many accomplishments of Pete Conrad
Pete Conrad was not one of the original Mercury 7, but he was in the group of astronauts right behind them, and he had a long and colorful career in space and on the ground. Here are a few of his accomplishments:
- Conrad was selected in the second class of NASA astronauts in 1962 following a distinguished career as a Navy test pilot and flight instructor.
- He was the co-pilot to Gordon Cooper on the flight of Gemini 5 in August 1965, and Cooper and Conrad spent a record eight days in orbit, perfecting techniques for use in later lunar missions and proving astronauts could spend more than a week in space.
- Conrad commanded the Gemini 11 mission in September 1966, in which he and co-pilot Richard Gordon established the fastest rendezvous and docking in space history, and a new altitude record of almost 850 miles above the Earth.
- He also commanded the Apollo 12 Moon mission in November 1969, becoming the third American to walk on the Moon, and along with Alan Bean and Richard Gordon, proved that pinpoint landings could be made there. Conrad and Bean also conducted the first significant science operations during their 31 hours on the lunar surface at the Ocean of Storms.
First commander of the first space station
Pete Conrad’s final space flight occurred in 1973, and it might have been even more interesting than his Apollo 12 Moon mission.
According to Space.com:
“(Pete Conrad) was the Commander of the first crew to live and work on America’s first space station, Skylab. Conrad, along with Paul Weitz and Joseph Kerwin, were launched on a modified Saturn rocket on May 25, 1973. Eleven days earlier, the station had been launched and had lost a solar panel during its climb to orbit.
Conrad and his crewmates freed the remaining solar array on Skylab and set up a sunshade to help cool the station for the remainder of its lifetime on orbit. He also conducted a space walk with Weitz late in the mission to retrieve film packages and conduct other maintenance procedures. In all, Conrad and his crew spent 28 days in space, establishing another endurance record at the time.”
I know, I know; this is a long way to get to what Pete Conrad has to do with Amazing Grace, but stay with me because I’m nearly there.
A colorful character to the very end
Pete Conrad was an interesting personality, as his 1999 obituary in The Washington Post made clear:
“Pete Conrad was one of the most colorful of the early astronauts, one of the most fun to be around, and he was in many ways their minstrel – the man who had an inexhaustible supply of stories about the space age. …
While he always took his work seriously, he wore life like a loose garment. He started riding motorcycles in his teens. He liked to race Formula-V cars. He liked to go fast – but he was not a fool about it. …
Michael Collins, another Apollo astronaut, summed up Conrad this way: “Funny, noisy, colorful, cool, competent; snazzy dresser, race-car driver. One of the few who lives up to the image. Should play Pete Conrad in a Pete Conrad movie.”
It’s probably fitting that Pete Conrad died like he lived.
As The New York Times reported, he was traveling from his home in Huntington Beach to Monterey along with his wife, Nancy, and several friends. He apparently lost control of his bike on a bend of Highway 150 and was flung from his Harley-Davidson.
Pete Conrad was wearing a helmet and obeying the 55 mile-an-hour speed limit, and his wife and friends said he did not look badly hurt, but he complained of chest pains and difficulty breathing. Although doctors at Ojai Valley Community Hospital worked to save him, he died more than five hours later, on July 8, 1999.
The Times obituary noted: “The former astronaut and Navy captain, who had survived more than 1,100 hours of often perilous space exploration, was 69.”
He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
One last request: Willie Nelson and Amazing Grace
Pete Conrad certainly had The Right Stuff, but I was struck by the fact that he had only had one real request if they ever had a memorial service for him:
It was pretty simple: He wanted Willie Nelson to sing Amazing Grace.
Now, there are a great many recordings of Amazing Grace, and it’s tough to pick out just one that’s best, but if you had to, it’s hard not to go with Willie Nelson.
It’s a sad fact of life that Americans can’t go to Moon anymore. Although President Kennedy made a manned Moon landing a national priority, America was already getting bored with it by the time Pete Conrad became the third human to set foot on lunar soil on November 19, 1969.
“Been there, done that” was the attitude, and scientists say that even if we DID want to go again, it would take 3-5 years to re-create the technology and actually do it.
I’m sure that made Pete Conrad sad, because he was part of a very exclusive club — one of only 12 Americans to set foot on another celestial body beyond the Earth. With the death of Gene Cernan back in January 2017 — he was the last person to walk on the Moon in 1972 — and John Young in 2018, only four remain. The youngest, Charles Duke, is 83.
Soon, all will be gone, and that’s why I remember Pete Conrad when I hear Amazing Grace.
He loved space, he loved America’s accomplishments in getting there, and he loved Willie Nelson’s version of Amazing Grace. It’s hard not to remember a guy like that.
By the way, Willie Nelson sang Amazing Grace one last time for Pete Conrad. I’m sure God himself smiled about that.
Editor’s Note: Updated July 2019 with the death of John Young.