Conrad, Pete

Pete Conrad was an American naval officer, astronaut and engineer, and he was the third person to walk on the Moon. He was born Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr. on June 2, 1930 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While his legal name was Charles, his mother gave him what would be his lifetime nickname, Pete. The Great Depression had a tough impact on the Conrad family, but they pulled through it. Conrad has always been bright and intelligent; however, he suffered from dyslexia, a condition that was not understood at the time, which made it hard for him to do his schoolwork. Conrad attended The Haverford School for most of his early education, but was expelled after he failed his 11th grade exams. While most thought of him as unintelligent, Conrad’s mother refused to believe it. She found the Darrow School in New York, and Conrad learned how to apply a “systems” approach to learning, and therefore found a way to work around his dyslexia. He did so well at Darrow that he was accepted to Princeton University and awarded a full Navy ROTC scholarship.

During his teen years, Conrad worked at Paoli Airfield near Philadelphia, where he traded lawn mowing and other odd jobs for airplane rides and eventually minor repairs and maintenance. When he was 16, he drove 100 miles to help a flight instructor whose plane had been forced to land due to a throttle malfunction. Conrad repaired the plane without help, which allowed the instructor to safely fly the plane home. From then on, the instructor gave Conrad the formal lessons he needed to earn his pilot’s license. He became a pilot before he graduated from high school.

Conrad continued flying in college to maintain his pilot’s license and to earn an instrument rating as well. In 1953, he received his bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Princeton University. He then entered the United States Navy and excelled in Navy flight school. He initially became a carrier pilot, but eventually made his way up to be a flight instructor and a test pilot at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. During his time at Princeton, Conrad met Jane DuBose. They married on June 16, 1953, just after his graduation from Princeton and acceptance of his Navy commission. They had four children together: Peter, Thomas, Andrew, and Christopher.

Conrad was invited to participate in the selection process for the first group of NASA astronauts. However, Conrad considered the medical and psychological tests to be invasive, demeaning, and unnecessary, so he eventually had enough and dropped out. When NASA announced its search for a second group of astronauts, the medical tests were less offensive, so he reapplied and later was invited to join NASA. He became a part of the New Nine on September 17, 1962. He was the first of his group to be assigned a Gemini mission. He flew Gemini 5 along with Gordon Cooper, and they set a new space endurance record of eight days. Following the successful flight, he was chosen as commander of the Gemini 8 back-up crew, and later commander of Gemini 11.

After the Apollo 1 disaster in 1967, NASA’s plan to incrementally test Saturn V and Apollo spacecraft machinery leading to the lunar landing had to be considerably modified in order to meet John F. Kennedy’s goal of reaching the Moon by the end of the decade. On November 14, 1969, Conrad launched into space on Apollo 12 with Dick Gordon and Alan Bean and completed the mission successfully. His last mission was commander of Skylab 2, the first crew aboard the space station. Their goal was to repair damage caused by a mishap on launch of the station. On a spacewalk, Conrad managed to free the stuck solar panel by sheer brute force, which saved the rest of the mission.

In 1973, Conrad retired from both NASA and the Navy. He went to work for American Television and Communications Company, and three years later worked for McDonnell Douglas. As a result of the demands of his career, Pete spent a substantial time away from his family. Eventually, Jane had established a separate life for herself, and the two divorced in 1988. A year later, their youngest son, Christopher, was diagnosed with malignant lymphoma and died at the age of 28. In 1990, Conrad remarried to Nancy Crane, whom he met through mutual friends.

During the 1990s Conrad was the ground-based pilot for several test flights of the Delta Clipper launch vehicle. On February 14, 1996, Conrad was part of the crew on a record-breaking two day flight around the world in a Learjet. Today the jet is on permanent static display at Denver International Airport’s Terminal C.

On July 8, 1999, while motorcycling in Ojai, California, Conrad ran off the road and crashed. He sustained severe injuries, and died from internal bleeding about six hours after the accident. He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Throughout his life, he maintained the motto: “If you can’t be good, be colorful.” As a tribute to deceased astronauts, the Johnson Space Center planted a grove of trees to honor them. After Conrad’s death, NASA planted a tree in his honor.

On September 8, 2008, The Conrad Foundation created the Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation Award. Teams of high school students across the nation are invited to compete in a competition where they create commercial products using science and technology. The award is given to the high school team that builds the most creative, new concept to benefit the personal spaceflight industry.