Through the lightning

The decision to control the Saturn V from its own instrument unit instead of using the capabilities of the command module's guidance system was primarily driven by the expectation that the vehicle would one day be called upon to carry payloads other than the Apollo spacecraft. It was dramatically shown to be a fortuitous decision when the Apollo 12 stack was struck by lightning only 36 seconds after it lifted into overcast cloud on 14 November 1969. Although the nearest natural lightning was kilometres away, the exhaust of the rocket left a trail of ionised gas that acted like a giant conductor, leading the cloud's static charge down to the ironwork of the launch tower.

"What the hell was that?'' called Dick Gordon after the interior of the cabin was flooded by a flash of white light. Gordon, the CMP for this mission, and his commander Pete Conrad were carefully watching the main display console. "I lost a whole bunch of stuff,'' yelled Gordon.

Directly in front of him, the caution and warning panel "was a sight to behold'' as Conrad would later recount. He began updating the flight controllers in Houston who had just taken over responsibility for the mission. "Okay, we just lost the platform, gang. I don't know what happened here; we had everything in the world drop out.'' He continued to inform them that the fuel cells that powered the spacecraft were no longer doing so, and that the guidance platform in the command module had tumbled out of alignment. The platform was now useless as a tool to guide anything, never mind the giant rocket that was currently powering them to space. Below them, the Saturn V had been entirely unaffected by the electrical catastrophe that had befallen its payload and it continued its programmed ascent without missing a beat. The crew rode the Saturn on into orbit, where they were able to bring the spacecraft's power back on line, align their guidance platform and continue successfully to the Moon.

Pete Conrad was one of the most colourful characters among the astronauts and was never short of a quip. "I think we need to do a little more all-weather testing. That's one of the better sims, believe me,'' he joked, comparing this real-life drama to the many simulated dramas they had practised endlessly prior to the mission. The Capcom at that time, Gerry Carr, jokingly informed him, "We've had a couple of cardiac arrests down here, too, Pete,'' to which Apollo l2's commander replied, "There wasn't any time for that up here.''

Later in the mission, Conrad laughed about the experience. "The launch was almost as good as me getting to fly the Saturn V into orbit.'' His was only the second Saturn equipped to allow the commander to fly manually to orbit - a contingency that, while never called upon, would have been welcomed by the hot-shot commanders within the astronaut corps.

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