Lunar Rover

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If in your first career you walked on the moon, and in your second you helped design a reusable rocket ship to make space travel less costly, it's a challenge deciding what to do next.

What Apollo XII astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad, 65, has his sights set on right now--besides half a dozen other projects--is taking a crack at setting an around-the-world speed record in a Lear jet. Early Monday, he and three crew mates will climb aboard the aircraft in an attempt to break the current record of just more than 50 hours, set in 1983 by aviator Brooke Knapp of Los Angeles and her co-pilots.

"I don't have any big desires to sit on my can and do nothing," Conrad says. "It's just not in my nature. When I find something that lights my candle, I'm off."

Seated for the moment in the living room of his Huntington Beach home, the third man to set foot on the moon manages to successfully blend his glory days in space with life here on Earth.

"Going to the moon was pushing the frontier," he said. "But practical things weren't coming out of it. That's what we're working on now."

A mixture of American Hero and Really Nice Guy, Conrad still flies planes, talks Apollo with kids and plays at a missile range with the Delta Clipper--a single-stage-to-orbit launch vehicle developed by McDonnell Douglas. After 20 years with the company, Conrad plans to retire next month.

He moved to California six years ago in a transfer from McDonnell Douglas' corporate headquarters in St. Louis. He began working at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach and the corporation's space-systems company in Huntington Beach, where he has been a part of the Delta Clipper project.

"What this guy has done in 10 minutes on any given day is more than most people do in 10 years," says Nancy Conrad, his wife of six years. "He has a lot of pies in front of him, and he's sticking his finger in all of them to see if he can pull out a plum. He's a true explorer."

Those close to the congressional Space Medal of Honor recipient say he has always managed to meld knowledge and articulate conversation with stories and humor. They describe him as having a zest for learning and exploring--and a consummate curiosity about things.

"He's very intelligent. Then you have that big gap in his teeth, and his shining pate. He's one of the most naturally genuine people I've ever known," says Stockton Rush, a childhood friend. "With Pete . . . what you see is what you get."

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Although Conrad retired from NASA and the Navy in 1973 to enter the business world, he still answers astronaut questions with the same childlike enthusiasm he had when he was turning flips in zero gravity and playing the first country music in space.

He talks to kids whenever he can. And time and again, he answers the question so many pose:

"How do you go to the bathroom in space?"

"If you want to keep your friends," he responds, each time as if for the first time, "very carefully."

Among the projects Conrad is involved in is making videos to get children interested in space, and he publishes spaceman-oriented comic books featuring "Commander Pete," his cartoon persona.

It's been a quarter-century since man first journeyed the quarter-million miles to the moon, and Conrad says his audiences today are very different than those that first wanted to hear details of his space travels.

Today, two generations of Americans have come along who have only watched grainy black-and-white file footage of Neil Armstrong taking one giant leap for mankind--they never saw it live.

"You've got to understand that probably 35% of the population wasn't born when we went to the moon. That changes things."

He tries to convey an attitude as well as information to kids.

"I just want them to have the same passion for what they do--whatever it may be--as I have with what I'm doing," he says.

He hopes along the way to infect their parents with the same enthusiasm for future space exploration.

Space travel, he says, must be made affordable, "and the pot boils from the bottom up."

"We have become content to stay on this planet because we have been mired in economic issues, shortsighted vision and party politics," says the man who commanded Skylab, Apollo XII, Gemini XI and piloted Gemini V. "Exploration has been curtailed because, frankly, it's become too expensive."

The answer, he says, is in the rocket he's been "playing with" at the missile range.

The bullet-shaped Delta Clipper is designed to take off vertically like conventional rockets but to land tail-first. According to Conrad, flight manager of the project, the reusable rocket will be able to soar into and out of orbit carrying payloads as heavy as 20,000 pounds.

Squeezing the Almighty Dollar is the key, Conrad says.

"This vehicle offers the potential to send packages from New York to Paris in a mere 45 minutes and medical materials from California to China in 40 minutes," he says. "The Delta Clipper is the first launch vehicle I've seen that will really allow us to go in and out of space routinely and economically. That's exciting."

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The son of Charles Conrad, a World War I balloonist, and Frances Conrad, a market researcher, Charles Conrad Jr. was born June 2, 1930, in Philadelphia.

He was not one to look skyward and dream of space travel but says he's always had a love affair with planes.

"I never wanted to be an astronaut, but I wanted to fly from the time I could think."

As a kid, he built and flew model airplanes with pals, walked to grade school through the underground storm drains, and explored anything and everything that piqued his curiosity.

"When we used to fly those model airplanes, I always wondered why mine always crashed and his didn't," Rush recalls with a laugh. "Now I know why."

At 15, three years after his parents divorced, Conrad began earning the wings that would fly him to the moon. He worked at a nearby airfield that had been closed during the war, sweeping up scraps in a machine shop there to earn flying lessons. In May 1946, the war was over, the airfield was reopened, and Conrad flew solo for the first time at 16.

"It was a big occasion. I flew out of Westchester Airport," he recalls, leafing though the log he used to record his flight time during those days. "You fly from the back seat, and when you fly solo, there's no one in front of you. I remember it well."

There were other winged expeditions during his teen-age years, however, that Conrad didn't make special note of it in his little black flight log.

But Rush did.

"I remember he was just a kid when he landed his plane on the front lawn at a potential girlfriend's house," Rush said. "Not a model plane, I mean a real plane--a cloth-covered Piper Cub. Her father wasn't too happy about it."

Conrad admits to his share of side adventures in his youth.

"You could say that I didn't apply myself, and I was a year behind," he says, "but we had a lot of fun."

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.

At Princeton, he met his first wife, Jane DuBose, who attended nearby Bryn Mawr College. They married in 1953 and 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.

"Test pilots are nice, quiet, ordinary folks," Conrad quips, "with a killer instinct."

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 several mechanical difficulties, near-aborts of the mission and severe physical discomfort, the flight lasted eight days.

It was the longest manned space flight to that date. "It was like eight days in a garbage can," Conrad remembers.

The next space travel for Conrad was the three-day Gemini XI flight Sept. 18, 1966. Conrad commanded that mission, where he caught and linked up with an Agena satellite, using the Agena engine to rocket to an altitude of 850 miles--another record at the time. His pilot, Dick Gordon, took a space walk.

The Gemini missions kept pushing the frontier, paving the way for Conrad's biggest challenge: The Apollo XII voyage from Nov. 14 to Nov. 24, 1969.

As it turns out, his first decision as commander came shortly after liftoff, when the Saturn V rocket was struck by lightning. The entire electrical system went out, and Conrad had to decide whether to abort the mission. His voice, he recalls, went up about 10 octaves.

"But it was best to just sit back and see what was going on. I decided we should wait to see what happened instead of making any rash decisions."

With that uncertain beginning, the second Apollo moon team successfully rocketed to its destination.

Conrad and astronaut Alan Bean walked on the dusty lunar surface collecting rocks and conducting experiments while Gordon orbited in the command module.

"He was always a confident commander who was way ahead of what's going on," Bean says. "Some other astronauts had more fame than he received, but internally, there was no astronaut more influential than Pete Conrad."

Conrad still remembers looking homeward from the lunar surface.

"The Earth resembled a beautiful blue marble suspended against a black velvet blanket," Conrad recalls. "From this perspective, I couldn't help but sense the fragility of this planet."

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Throughout the years, Conrad has seen fellow astronauts and test pilots lose their lives.

No loss, though, has been tougher than the death of son Christopher, who was 29 when he died of bone cancer in 1990.

"It was a difficult time for everyone, especially his brothers. They were really close," says Conrad, his eyes filling with tears. "He gave it a tough fight."

Of Conrad's surviving three sons, two inherited the flight gene. Andrew, 36, lives in Denver and is a commercial pilot. Peter, 41, sells airplanes in Texas.

Thomas, 38, runs a computer company and lives in Palos Verdes.

Peter Conrad says growing up with a famous astronaut father was a lot of fun.

"In our neighborhood, it seemed like everyone was involved in the space program in one way or another. And Dad was the one who introduced me to aviation."

Even today, the Conrad boys have a tough time keeping up with their father, now a grandpa.

"He's got a lot of energy, a lot of what you might call vim and vigor," says Peter. "He's 65 and I'm 41--and it's hard to keep up."

Conrad met his second wife on a blind date.

"You might say I was smitten," he says. "I either like somebody or I don't like somebody. If they're in-between, they don't exist."

Taking a playful jab at her husband's 5-foot-6 frame, Nancy Conrad recalls the first time they met.

"Here was this bright and funny man that I could look eye to eye with . . . on many levels. I just thought he was an interesting man with a great energy. He absolutely has the clearest knowledge about who he is."

The walls of the Conrad home are decorated with various pieces of space memorabilia, some obvious, some obscure, each with a story.

"When I married Pete, his dowry was 25 grocery bags full of stuff," his wife says.

Among the stuff: the bullfighter's jacket sent to him by a matador (who included a note explaining he was wearing it in the ring when the Apollo XII flight went over Spain) and the bandanna that Willie Nelson gave him for playing the first country music in space.

"He can get lost looking through old pictures and things, but that's not really what he's all about," Nancy Conrad says. "He's really into the now."

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When her husband pulls on his new royal-blue flight suit just after midnight tonight, living in the now promises to carry some of the thrill of earlier record-setting missions.

"We worked together as a team, getting everything up to date . . . the map, the charts, the approach plates. It sort of reminds me of the old days," he says. "It's a bit like putting together a three-day Gemini team."

Besides its bid to set a new world speed record for a light business class jet, the trip sponsored by Colorado-based Daniels Communications Inc. will benefit Junior Achievement International, based in Colorado Springs.

Conrad and the flight team met with junior high school students who made posters for them to take on their journey. Because the flight benefits kids, it has a special meaning, he says.

"It makes the objective a little more broad than just going out and breaking a record. This is great."

They hope to complete the flight in 48 hours. To do that they would need to beat the 458.9 mph achieved by Knapp in 1983.

Conrad and his crew are scheduled to take off from Denver's Centennial Airport shortly before 1 a.m. Monday.

They plan to make 30-minute refueling stops in Puerto Rico, Cape Verde, Italy, Saudi Arabia, India, the Philippines, the island of Sakhalin and Alaska before returning to Denver.

It's not the moon, Conrad says, but evidence certainly that there is no shortage of new challenges here on Earth.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr.

Background: Age 65. Four children: Peter, 41, Thomas, 38, Andrew, 36, Christopher (deceased). Lives in Huntington Beach with his wife, Nancy.

Achievements: Walked on the moon in 1969. A naval aviator and career astronaut, his missions included Gemini V, Gemini XI, Apollo XII and Skylab.

Passions: Learning, exploration, innovation. "Fast bikes, fast cars . . . anything that moves."

On space humor: "If you can't be good, be colorful."

In answer to the letter asking "Do you think there's any life in space?": "Haven't seen any, but I believe it is a definite possibility. After all, there's plenty of unearthly looking things moving around in my refrigerator, so there's always a chance of life springing up almost anywhere."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr.

Background: Age 65. Four children: Peter, 41, Thomas, 38, Andrew, 36, Christopher (deceased). Lives in Huntington Beach with his wife, Nancy.

Achievements: Walked on the moon in 1969. A naval aviator and career astronaut, his missions included Gemini V, Gemini XI, Apollo XII and Skylab.

Passions: Learning, exploration, innovation. "Fast bikes, fast cars . . . anything that moves."

On space humor: "If you can't be good, be colorful."

In answer to the letter asking "Do you think there's any life in space?": "Haven't seen any, but I believe it is a definite possibility. After all, there's plenty of unearthly looking things moving around in my refrigerator, so there's always a chance of life springing up almost anywhere."

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