"If you can’t be good, be colorful."—Conrad's personal motto
Visitors to the Armory often seem shocked when they first see the framed photo of Trooper Pete Conrad walking on the moon. And while most Troopers are happy to claim Conrad as one of their number, few know much about him than his exploits in space. Here are some further details about the Pete Conrad story, assembled with help from the Troop archives, some of the older Honoraries, and Wikipedia.
Conrad was born in Philadelphia to a well-heeled (banking and real estate) family in 1930, and then raised somewhere on the Main Line. After the Great Depression wiped out their finances, his family downsized from the“manor house” to a carriage house on the same premises.
Although Conrad was a bright and intelligent boy, he struggled with schoolwork due to dyslexia, a condition much misunderstood at the time. He attended The Haverford School, where previous generations of Conrads had attended, but got expelled for failing exams in 11th grade. His mother then enrolled him in the Darrow School in New York State, where he learned to apply a systems approach to learning and working around his dyslexia. (A Trooper who remembered Conrad from this period added that Conrad's reputation as a "problem child" probably led to his parents encouraging him to join the First City Troop.)
Starting at age 15, Conrad worked a summer job at Paoli Airfield, bartering lawn mowing, sweeping, and other odd jobs for airplane flights and occasional instruction. This allowed him to earn his pilot's license before graduating high school.
He excelled enough at Darrow School to attend Princeton University in 1949 on a full Navy ROTC scholarship. Around that time, he met Jane DuBose, a student at Bryn Mawr, whose family owned a 1,600-acre ranch in Texas. In 1953, Jane painted the portrait of Conrad in full Troop uniform shown on this page.
Conrad continued flying while in college. He graduated from Princeton in 1953 with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering, and commission in the U.S. Navy. While training to be a fighter pilot, he wrote letters to the First City Troop from flight school, which Captain Stokes would read aloud at Troop meetings.
He excelled in flight school, served for several years as an aircraft carrier pilot, flight instructor, and test pilot. This led to his selection among the first group of astronauts at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), known as "Mercury Seven."
Like his fellow candidates, Conrad endured a series of invasive, demeaning, and (as they saw it) unnecessary medical and psychological tests at the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in New Mexico. But unlike his fellow candidates, Conrad fought back with schoolboy pranks that would make any First City Trooper smile.
For example, during a Rorschach inkblot test, he told the psychiatrist in lurid detail that one blot card reminded him of a sexual encounter. When shown a blank card, he turned it around, pushed it back and replied "It's upside down". When he was asked to deliver a stool sample to the lab, he placed it in a gift box tied with a red ribbon. Eventually, he got so fed up with the testing process that he dropped his full enema bag on the desk of the clinic’s commanding officer, and walked out of the program.
He returned to the Navy as an elite F-4 Phantom pilot, serving in the Pacific Fleet. When NASA assembled a second group of astronauts in 1962, Mercury veteran Alan Shepard persuaded Conrad to reapply for the program. This time around, Conrad found the medical tests less invasive, and he was selected to join NASA.
As one of the best pilots in this new group, Conrad was among the first men assigned to the Gemini mission. As a Gemini 5 pilot, he helped set a new space endurance record of eight days, surpassing the prior five-day Russian record. Conrad jokingly referred to the Gemini capsule as a flying garbage can, and remarked that as one of the smallest of the astronauts (5 feet 6½ inches tall), he found the space capsule's confinement much less restrictive than did his Commander, a hefty football player.
In 1966, Conrad was assigned to command the backup crew for the first Earth orbital test flight of the complete Apollo spacecraft with Lunar Module. Delays in the LM's development pushed this mission to December 1968 as Apollo 8 and then Apollo 9 in 1969.
On the week of the Troop's anniversary dinner in 1969, Apollo 12 was launched on November 14, with Conrad as the Commander. A series of lightning strikes that knocked out power and guidance systems in the Command Module made Conrad's launch among the most harrowing of the Apollo program.
Five days after launch, Conrad stepped onto the lunar surface. Unlike those of his fellow astronauts, Conrad's first words on the moon were wisecracks. Joking about his stature, he said "Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me." Also, having made a $500 bet with an Italian journalist to prove that NASA did not script astronaut comments, Conrad said "Oooh, is that soft and queasy," as he set foot on the moon.
(It is said that Conrad took a Troop flag to the moon. Honorary Trooper Pete Cachion dismisses this as a false rumor, though he admits that he wishes it were true.)
Conrad remained an astronaut for a few years after the lunar mission. On his last trip in space, he was Commander of Skylab 2, the first crew to board the Skylab space station. During that mission, the station got damaged on its unmanned launch when its micrometeoroid shield tore away, taking one of two main solar panels with it and jamming the other one so that it could not deploy. Conrad repaired the damage by pulling free the stuck solar panel by brute force.
Conrad retired from NASA and the Navy in 1973, and went to work for American Television and Communications Company. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter honored Conrad with the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. During the 1990s he worked as the ground-based pilot for several test flights of the Delta Clipper experimental single stage to orbit launch vehicle, and in 1996, he crewed on a record-breaking around-the-world flight in a Learjet owned by cable TV pioneer, Bill Daniels. The flight lasted 49 hours, 26 minutes and 8 seconds.
Conrad occasionally appeared on TV. He held up a credit card in an American Express ad, and said -- "And someday, I may even use it on the Moon." In 1975 he was in a made-for-TV movie called Stowaway on the Moon, and he played himself in the 1991 television movie Plymouth, about a fictional lunar base. On aPBS's Nova episode, he discussed the future direction of space travel, saying that he considered returning to the Moon "a waste of taxpayer money", but recommending missions to Mars and asteroids.
Recently, one of the photos he took during the mission with his own image visible on the helmet visor of Al Bean was listed on Popular Science's photo gallery of the best astronaut selfies.
Conrad died in a motorcycle accident in California in 1999, less than three weeks before the 30th anniversary of his moon walk.