I know that I have readers who are intimately familiar with the US Manned Space Program, but I also know that I have many who are not – so hopefully this will be a new (and charmingly amusing) story for many of you!
Some background: Charles “Pete” Conrad was a distinguished Navy aviator and test pilot. He was selected in the second group of NASA astronauts in 1962, known as the “New Nine”. Conrad flew twice on Gemini (Gemini 5 and Gemini 11), commanded the Apollo 12 lunar landing mission, and commanded the Skylab 2 mission.
But even that impressive spaceflight resume doesn’t really describe Pete. Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot, described Pete as:
Funny, noisy, colorful, cool, competent; snazzy dresser, race-car driver. One of the few who lives up to the image.
All you really have to do to get a sense of Pete Conrad is compare and contrast his “official” NASA astronaut photo with a more appropriate “Pete being Pete” photo. Remember, this was at a time in the early 1960s when NASA was very stoic and image-conscious, so this was a significant departure from the “Right Stuff” image that was being fostered and promoted!
On the 10th anniversary of the Challenger Accident in 1996, leadership at the Johnson Space Center organized an effort to plant seven live oak trees for in memory of the STS-51L crew members. The Astronaut Memorial Grove has hosted tree dedication ceremonies from that point on, in memory and honor of every astronaut who has gone on to “Touch the Face of God”.
In December at JSC, these trees are lit up with solid Christmas lights – to help set them apart and bring a sense of magic and wonder to the Grove.
There is one, however, that is different. It shouldn’t surprise you that it’s Pete’s. After all, his first words on the surface of the Moon were “Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me!”
From the JSC Roundup newsletter (December 2007):
In the book “Rocket Man” by Howard Klausner and Nancy Conrad, wife of late astronaut Pete Conrad, astronaut Buzz Aldrin said when Pete’s tree was dedicated, his close friend and Apollo 12 crewmate Alan Bean took the podium and “channeled” the spirit of his departed comrade.
Like the Oracle of Apollo delivering messages from the great beyond, Bean paused and looked skyward for about 10 seconds, looked down at the hundreds of JSC employees assembled, and quipped, “As I fell asleep last night, I was thinking about what I might say today. I woke up in the middle of the night and Pete was at the foot of my bed, saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, Beano, I’ll tell you what to say tomorrow!’”
Again, Bean paused and looked to the sky. “Okay Pete… Okay… I can do that.”
Bean looked back at the crowd and said, “Pete wanted everyone to know he appreciates their being here today.”
Then he turned his attention to Abbey: “George, Pete says that while he was here he was always the shortest astronaut, but he doesn’t want his tree to be the smallest tree. Pete wants his tree to be special—the most colorful tree—because his motto is, ‘If you can’t be good, be colorful.’”
Epilogue: Alan Bean passed away in 2018.
At his Tree Planting Ceremony at JSC in 2019, his widow told Alan’s story of Pete’s wishes for a colorful tree. She asked that, since Alan Bean was a prolific, talented, and very focused artist who captured not only the reality, but the wonders, of spaceflight, if Alan’s tree might be decked out in color, too.
Now located not too far from Pete’s tree is the SECOND colorful tree in the Astronaut Memorial Grove. Alan’s tree is decked out in vibrant blue, pink, red, and violet bulbs that really represent an artist’s palette.
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