How NASA Saved The Moon Program The Same Way You Fix Your WiFi

What are the odds of being struck by lightning not once, but twice on your way to the moon? It seems the probability of such an event would be nearly impossible, yet that is exactly what happened to Apollo 12 and its crew 36.5 seconds after takeoff on November 14, 1969. Apollo 12 was part of NASA's Apollo program, the space program led to the moon landing that changed history forever. 

Lightning may not have been one of the weirdest things astronauts have seen in space, but it certainly constituted danger. Thankfully, the crew was able to survive and successfully complete their mission - all because of an environmental control engineer named John Aaron.

Aaron recognized the use for an incredibly obscure switch that not even his bosses knew about. His quick thinking not only saved the crew of the Apollo 12 mission, but also launched him into stardom amongst his colleagues and earned him the nerdy-yet-affection nickname, "steely-eyed missile man." 

  • Apollo 12 Was The Second US Mission To The Moon, Aiming For "The Ocean Of Storms"

    The first successful mission to put man on the moon, known as Apollo 11, took place on July 16, 1969. Only a few months later, NASA sent out another team of astronauts on a mission called Apollo 12 to explore territory on the moon called the Ocean of Storms, where a NASA robot had already touched base two years prior. 

    Ironically, the spacecraft carrying the Apollo 12 team took off during a terrible storm on earth, which lead to the ship getting struck by lightning not once, but twice during its ascent to space. 

  • The Spacecraft Was Hit By Lightning Twice In Less Than A Minute After Takeoff

    The Spacecraft Was Hit By Lightning Twice In Less Than A Minute After Takeoff
    Photo: ugowar / YouTube

    Everything initially looked to be in top shape for the Yankee Clipper, the spacecraft manned by astronauts Charles "Pete" Conrad, Alan Bean, and Richard Gordon. However, that would change rapidly. 36.5 seconds into their ascent, the Yankee Clipper was struck by lightning. Over the radio, Conrad was overheard saying: "What the hell was that?"

    The three astronauts were unaware that they had been hit, only that their spacecraft shook and "almost all of the warning lights on the instrument panel suddenly lit up like Christmas." In less than a minute, it seemed that all their power was gone.

    And then it happened again. At 52 seconds, another bolt of lightning slammed into the Yankee Clipper. After this, the instrument panel went dark. 

  • The Astronauts And Engineers Only Had A Minute And A Half To Decide What To Do

    The three astronauts were hurtling toward space and the room full of confused engineers on the ground only had 90 seconds to decide a course of action. No one really knew what to do. The ship seemed to be flying fine despite the hit and backup batteries would last the crew at least a few hours. However, if they made it into orbit, coming back home without any power would be near impossible. Their other option was to just abort the mission and land in the ocean.

    For 20 seconds, no one on the ground said a word. However, less than a minute after the lightning struck, an environmental control engineer named John Aaron gave out a calm order: "Try SCE to Aux." 

  • John Aaron's Idea Was So Obscure, His Two Bosses Didn't Understand The Directive

    John Aaron was a 24-year-old engineer for NASA who was tasked with knowing anything and everything about the spacecraft's electrical grid. Luckily, Aaron was good at his job, and then some. He realized that by simply flipping a switch, he could save the mission.

    Aaron recalled that there was a switch called the SCE (Signal Conditioning Equipment) that, when flipped, would turn the spacecraft's power to auxiliary, or backup, mode. He knew that the voltage from the lightning bolt was part of the problem, and that in auxiliary mode, the SCE would continue to run on lower voltage, saving the ship from another strike and restoring the panel.

    However, his directive, "Try SCE to Aux," went over the heads of his bosses, Gerald Carr and Gerry Griffen. Aaron was able to quickly explain to them his thinking, and Carr directed the order to the astronauts. 

  • Only Pilot Alan Bean Understood Aaron's Order

    Only Pilot Alan Bean Understood Aaron's Order
    Photo: NASA/Charles Conrad / Wikimedia Commons

    At first, the astronauts were just as confused as Aaron's bosses about the directive. However, Alan Bean was able to remember which switch was the SCE (out of the hundreds of switches on the panel) from a simulation he participated in earlier that year. Thanks to both Aaron and Bean's sharp memories, the Apollo 12 mission was saved.

    With the lights back to normal, Aaron could see the problem - they simply needed to reset the fuel cells. With this simple procedure, power was restored to the Yankee Clipper.  

  • Aaron Was Able To Fix Apollo 12's Problem Because Of Something He Noticed During A Simulation

    Aaron Was Able To Fix Apollo 12's Problem Because Of Something He Noticed During A Simulation
    Photo: ugowar / YouTube

    Aaron's quick thinking is made all the more impressive by the fact that he only knew what to do because of a problem he saw during a simulation, one that spiked his curiosity. He told an interviewer: 

    "I happened to be on the third shift one night, watching a test of the command module that they were performing at Kennedy. [...] They dropped all the power on the vehicle to go on battery. These numbers of the way the system reacted to that, this pattern of numbers came up and I was intrigued by them, because they didn't go to zero. They were at 6.7, 12.3. I mean, some squirrelly kind of numbers.

    [...] Why would those pattern of numbers have come up? Well, [...] when lightning struck the vehicle on Apollo 12, that exact pattern showed up. So it wasn't that I understood exactly what had happened, I recognized a pattern and how to get out of it."