Highly unlikely, but it happened: 50 years ago, NASA’s Apollo spacecraft was struck by lightning during its ascent, not once, but twice. Seconds after the craft launched on November 14, 1969, from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Saturn V launch vehicle was struck at about 2 kilometers off the ground, then again at 4.3 kilometers off the ground.
Onboard the Apollo 12 were Charles Conrad, commander of the ship, Alan Bean, pilot of the module to the moon, and Richard Gordon. The command module pilot. The crew said they saw the flash and later felt the effects of the strike, which caused temporary as well as permanent effects on the craft and launch vehicle. Non-essential sensors were among the permanently destroyed equipment, NASA revealed in summary published in a paper titled ‘Analysis of Apollo 12 Lightning Incident’.
Flight Controller John Aaron came in handy in the mission, having prior experienced similar conditions during simulation experiments. Aaron had earlier noticed a strange data signature while conducting a simulation one night in 1968. His curiosity, he says, led him to observe that NASA was unprepared for an event like that, steeling himself in preparation for it. The team was, therefore, able to react fast with information from Aaron, moving quickly to reset the Signal Conditioning Equipment (SCE) equipment. With the aid of guidance from ground support, the mission ran successfully, landing the crew safely to their landing on the moon at the ‘Ocean of Storms’ site on November 19.
Bean and Conrad successfully deployed the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment, which is a set of investigations on the lunar surface geared to provide data for research on Earth, before returning and landing safely. Included in the Apollo experimentation kit is the Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment, which was initially purposed to measure the distance from the moon to the earth using the Lunar Laser Ranging Reflector. The instrument measures the time it takes for a laser beam to travel to earth and back, and is still working to date, according to James Williams, a scientist working on the project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.
Additionally, the paper noted that while the possibility of the spacecraft triggering lightning had not been explained before, the Apollo had been designed to mitigate and handle small triggered sparks of lightning. In light of this phenomenon, NASA’s future missions were faced with strict launch regulations, especially in connection to flights in potentially dangerous weather conditions.
This post was originally published on Food and Beverage Herald