Obituary: Charles Conrad Jnr

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The Independent Culture
CHARLES CONRAD Jnr was one of the true heroes of the Space Age, a larger-than-life figure who exuded what the novelist Tom Wolfe called "The Right Stuff". His place in history was assured by his participation in four space flights, including the second landing on the Moon and the rescue of the Skylab space station. Apart from his monumental contributions to the early successes of the American space programme, Conrad will be remembered as an enthusiastic and forthright supporter of human space exploration.

"Pete" Conrad was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1930, the son of a wealthy stockbroker whose fortunes suffered badly during the Depression. After attending schools in Haverford, Pennsylvania, and New Lebanon, New York, Conrad gained a scholarship to Princeton University under the Holloway Plan, a programme left over from the Second World War which enabled students to train with midshipmen from the Naval Academy during the summer and eventually to graduate with a commission in the US Navy.

Conrad duly gained a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering and became a naval aviator. While he was a senior at Princeton, he met his future wife Jane DuBose at a debutante's party at the Gulph Mills Club in Philadelphia. They were married two days after his graduation in the Class of '53, then headed to Pensacola, Florida, for flight training.

Over the next few years, Conrad saw many of his closest comrades die in air accidents as he moved up the ranks and transferred to Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland to train as a test pilot. At the same time, he came into contact with other military aviators who later made their names as Nasa astronauts.

Conrad was excited by the idea of manned space exploration and jumped at the chance of becoming one of the first humans to orbit the planet. In the age of limited rocket power and small spacecraft, his diminutive size - 5ft 6in tall and weight around 140lb - proved a definite advantage in the fierce competition to be chosen for the Mercury programme. Unfortunately, Conrad was unable to contain his scorn at some of the undignified and - as he saw it - unnecessary physical and psychological tests which the candidates had to endure at the notorious Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

On one occasion, he burst into the office of the commanding general and vehemently protested about the number of enemas to which he had been subjected. On another, when asked what he could see in a blank sheet of paper, he carefully studied the sheet for some time and then solemnly announced, "It's upside down!"

Not surprisingly perhaps, Conrad was not chosen to join the first Nasa group of seven astronauts. Realising that his attitude had not helped his cause, Conrad applied again for the second round of astronaut recruitment in 1962. This time he was successful.

His first space flight came three years later when he served as pilot alongside the Mercury veteran Gordon Cooper on the eight-day Gemini 5 mission, the longest manned flight up to that time. In 1966, Conrad commanded the three-day Gemini 11 mission, during which he and Richard Gordon set a new altitude record of 850 miles above the Earth.

Having paved the way for the Apollo Moon landings, Conrad was rewarded with command of Apollo 12, the second Moon landing. Having survived a lightning strike during a rough ride to orbit, Conrad, Alan Bean and Gordon headed towards the lunar Ocean of Storms. With typical exuberance, as he stepped on to the dusty plains to become only the third man to set foot on another world, Conrad exclaimed for the benefit of the millions listening world-wide, "Whoopee! That may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me."

Conrad and Bean spent seven hours and 45 minutes on the lunar surface, deploying experiments and snapping pictures. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the unmanned Surveyor 3 spacecraft which was located close to their landing site.

Conrad's fourth and final space flight was almost cancelled at the last minute by severe damage to the Skylab space station during launch. Conrad, Joseph Kerwin and Paul Weitz were hurriedly prepared for a dangerous rescue attempt. Uncertain of what they would find, the astronauts were shocked to report that one of the station's solar panels had been torn away during launch, and the other had failed to open out properly. In one of the most hair-raising spacewalks of all time, Conrad and Kerwin succeeded in cutting the remaining panel free and manually heaving on it until it fully deployed. The space station was saved and was eventually occupied by three crews.

After his record-breaking 28 days on board Skylab, Conrad's total space time rose to an individual record of 1,179 hours and 38 minutes. In 1973 he retired from Nasa and the navy to accept a position as vice-president of the American Television and Communications Corporation.

Over the following years, he also held executive positions with McDonnell Douglas Corporation and various banking companies. But his first love was space flight, and in the early 1990s he returned to action, heading a team which flew the revolutionary reusable Delta Clipper rocket. At the time of his death, he was still involved with six new commercial space service companies.

Ever a humorist, in a recent interview with the Associated Press, Conrad said he was looking forward to the day he turned 77. "I fully expect that Nasa will send me back to the Moon as they treated Senator [John] Glenn, and if they don't do otherwise, why, then I'll have to do it myself," he declared.

In reflecting on the upcoming 30th anniversary of Apollo 11, Conrad recently said, "Time flies when you're having fun, and I've been having fun for the last 30 years."

Charles Peter Conrad, astronaut: born Philadelphia 2 June 1930; twice married (three sons, and one son deceased); died Ojai, California 8 July 1999.