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."
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.
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 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 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.