Apollo 12 astronaut Conrad dies in accident

3rd man to walk on moon killed in motorcycle crash in California

July 10, 1999|By Los Angeles Times

OJAI, Calif. -- Charles P. "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.

Mr. Conrad, a Huntington Beach resident whose lifelong aerospace career started with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1962, died at 5: 07 p.m. at Ojai Valley Hospital, five hours after crashing his 1996 Harley, said James Baroni, a Ventura County deputy coroner.

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

"Initially it did not appear that he had many injuries," Mr. 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."

Mr. Conrad's wife, Nancy Conrad, was riding on another motorcycle when the crash occurred, Mr. Baroni said. They and several friends, also on motorcycles, had been headed north to Monterey, accompanied by a car pulling a trailer filled with motorcycle parts in case of mechanical problems.

It was not uncommon for Mr. Conrad to be riding. In fact, he fancied himself a thrill seeker. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times several years ago, Mr. Conrad said he enjoyed "fast bikes, fast cars and anything that moves."

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

Mr. 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 yesterday showed that he died of internal bleeding, the Associated Press reported.

Mr. 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, he flew solo for the first time at age 16.

After attending Princeton University, he joined the Navy, became an aviator and attended the Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, where he was a test pilot, flight instructor and performance engineer. It was at Patuxent River, Mr. Conrad said later, that he developed "the killer instinct" of a test pilot.

Mr. 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 mechanical difficulties and near-aborts, the flight lasted eight days.

It was the longest manned space flight to that date.

Mr. 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 Mr. Conrad's biggest challenge: the Apollo 12 voyage from Nov. 14 to 24, 1969.

It was on that mission that Mr. Conrad and astronaut Alan L. Bean walked on the dusty lunar surface collecting rocks and conducting experiments.

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.

"America has lost one of the great aviators and explorers of the 20th century," NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin told the Associated Press. "He embodied the `can-do' spirit of NASA, taking on problems and dealing with them without a lot of fuss."

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. Mr. Conrad once said 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.

Mr. Conrad is survived by his wife, Nancy, and three adult children: Peter, Thomas, and Andrew.

Pub Date: 7/10/99

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