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Conrad: Pioneer of the Final Frontier

By Kathy Sawyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 1999; Page C1

At 69, he still came across like a kid with a big, mischievous grin. He was a spinner of yarns, a prankster, racing through an active life with a cell phone at one ear and his hand on the controls of some racy vehicle.

Careful not to become trapped in the receding glories of Apollo, Pete Conrad, the third man to set foot on the moon, had kept his life on fast-forward, his focus on the future until he finally ran out of road hurtling up the California coast Thursday on his Harley-Davidson. It would be sentimental claptrap to suggest that, if he had to go, this is the way he would have wanted it. He didn't want to go. As a colleague said yesterday, "He took risks, but he wasn't reckless." He had too much he wanted to do, much of it in concert with his wife and sidekick, Nancy, another high-energy type. There were kids and grandkids, and he had his own aerospace company to run.

Pete Conrad was one of the most colorful of the early astronauts, one of the most fun to be around, and he was in many ways their minstrel the man who had an inexhaustible supply of stories about the space age. He became one of the main characters and was presumably one of the best sources of material in Tom Wolfe's epic history, "The Right Stuff." In the opening scenes, he was a young test pilot at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, going about the gruesome task of picking up bits and pieces of buddies who have crashed and burned in their jets. By his early thirties, he had established a reputation as a great "stick and rudder" man.

While he always took his work seriously, he wore life like a loose garment. He started riding motorcycles in his teens. He liked to race Formula-V cars. He liked to go fast but he was not a fool about it. He liked to remember the time in 1964 when he and some friends headed for a Texas ranch three hours away to do some hunting. They formed a parade of Corvettes. Deke Slayton, head of the astronaut office, took the lead. They were doing 100 mph or more on the two-lane road and along the way, he said, "we picked up some poor kid in another Corvette. He was just a teenager who saw us go by and wanted to join the fun." They were going so fast that even Conrad was concerned, so when they stopped for burgers, he suggested that the quiet, serious Neil Armstrong take the point. That should slow things down, Conrad thought. Instead, Armstrong took off, going faster than Slayton had. Pretty soon, they heard sirens. They all were pulled over and arrested.

Michael Collins, another Apollo astronaut, summed up Conrad this way: "Funny, noisy, colorful, cool, competent; snazzy dresser, race-car driver. One of the few who lives up to the image. Should play Pete Conrad in a Pete Conrad movie."

Conrad gave his fellow pilots deliberately abusive nicknames, the most famous of which was "Shaky" for Tom Lovell, who would become commander of the nearly tragic Apollo 13 and would be played by Tom Hanks in the hit movie.

Sorely disappointed at not being chosen to be one of the original Mercury astronauts, Conrad speculated that it was because he made sport of the psychologists' tests. When they showed him a blank card, for example, he stared at it briefly and told them: "It's upside down."

Friends say one of Conrad's finest memorials is a code that would allow astronauts to discuss private matters or say naughty things on the communications loop without outsiders understanding what was going on. And he invented a fictitious astronaut named Walter Frisbee, to whom he referred when talking to reporters. Legend has it that Frisbee was sometimes quoted in print.

He was the sort of man who, as commander of Apollo 12, could sit coolly with his two crew mates as they accelerated toward orbit, realizing that lightning had just struck the fuel-loaded bomb the giant Saturn 5 moon rocket atop which they sat. The bolt tripped virtually every circuit breaker on board, but as soon as Conrad was assured the flight did not have to be aborted, he and his crew mates broke out in uproarious laughter. It would make a great war story!

Some Apollo veterans, including Conrad himself, have mused that for better or worse the whole tone of the moon landings would have been different if the exuberant Conrad, rather than the taciturn Neil Armstrong, had commanded the first landing.

Conrad provided a sample after his pinpoint landing on the moon, when he took that historic three-foot step from the ladder on Nov. 19, 1969, and became the third man to set foot in the lunar dust. By this time, the United States had won the moon race against the Russians, public scrutiny had relaxed and the need for profundity had diminished.

"Whoopee!" Conrad said as he stepped off, and then, referring to the fact that he was short (5 feet 6): "Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me."

According to an account in "A Man on the Moon," by Andrew Chaikin, which Conrad recently confirmed in an interview, he said that in order to win a bet. He and his first wife, Jane, had been home in Houston, sitting around the pool with journalist Oriana Fallaci, who was convinced that NASA had scripted Armstrong's first words on the moon for him. Conrad vowed to prove otherwise by predicting to her at that moment what he would say upon landing. "Impossible," Fallaci growled. "They'll never let you get away with it." Conrad was never able to collect the $500 he won in the bet.

After he left NASA, Conrad devoted his time to developing better ways to get into space, good causes, and fun with friends. He still flew a Cessna Citation business jet. "He loved to be on the cutting edge, no matter where it was," said 30-year friend, former "Today" show host Jim Hartz.

It was a tenet of the culture of the Right Stuff that one never talked about death or the fear of death. A test pilot always figured if he did everything he was supposed to do, he would never "auger in."

To the last, Conrad had that to hold on to. There are reports from the scene of the accident that neither Conrad, nor those who were with him, thought his injuries were very serious at first. When he went under the anesthesia, he still thought he'd be coming back.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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