Cosmic Spider: the Interplanetary Thread Linking Pete Conrad, Reg Turnill and H.G. Wells

“And this thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulated ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder.”
The War of the Words
H.G. Wells

Pete Conrad: testing equipment in a Skylab mock-up, and (below) inside the Apollo 12 CSM: Yankee Clipper. Images courtesy of NASA and the BIS archives.

One of the joys of browsing in the BIS library is picking a book at random from one of the shelves and seeing where the page falls open. Often this is much like stepping through a doorway into another time and place. One such journey recently transported me back to the days of Apollo, when so much had seemed possible: bases on the Moon, holidays is  space, the dawn of a true Space Age; and all brought about simply by launching rockets at our nearest celestial neighbour. In the stillness of the BIS library, it sometimes seems possible to detect the far-off echo of the rocket engines that were once fired on the Florida peninsula, along with the faintest trace of the media commentaries, such as those provided by Reg Turnill:

“There is tremendous excitement about the “Genesis Rock,” especially if it does turn out that it contains a geological record of the formation of the Moon. It’s a lot to hope for but there’s a good chance that it will…”

Mention Apollo to most people and they probably think of the Saturn V itself, the white tower pointing at its destination like an enormous arrow, or dust- covered astronauts leaping slowly on the Moon. But for me the most memorable and exotic aspect of the Apollo configuration was the lunar lander, the delicate spider-like vehicle that could only ever have been built for spaceflight. The story of how that ungainly machine was designed, tested and flown is told in Thomas J. Kelly’s book Moon Lander. When I opened this book in the BIS library I found myself, by some quirk of chance, reading about my favourite astronaut. The passage in question was as good a literary pencil sketch as any I have ever found:

A weaponised “Terran module” pursues “the rout of mankind” in H.G Wells’s classic depiction of an alien intervention in human affairs.

“Pete Conrad was unlike most of the other astronauts. Voluble, excitable, enthusiastic, and totally approachable, he had none of the “right stuff” reserve displayed by some of NASA’s superstars. Nor, like many of his colleagues, did his appearance suggest that Hollywood central casting had chosen him for the role of spaceflight hero. Short, balding, and with widely spaced upper front teeth, he looked more like a jokey than an astronaut, but he was a seasoned navy carrier and test pilot, and a proven veteran of the Gemini programme…Beneath his easy-going attitude and wisecracking lay competence, experience, and sound judgement.”

And it was Conrad who coolly decided not to abort the mission when Apollo 12 was hit by lightning not long after the Saturn V left the launch pad. Conrad has been championed before in earlier Odyssey posts and he continues to be an intriguing figure, in many ways the most human of the Moon voyagers. His early death in a motor cycle accident seemed an absurd turn of fate, especially in view of the dangers he’d faced in travelling to and from space. It’s ironic that a man who helped to test so many prototype machines, and in the most unforgiving of all environments, should die in such a mundane fashion on a two wheeled vehicle of the type that millions of people ride every day.

Conrad flew in Intrepid (the Apollo 12 spider), and it’s interesting to wonder what he thought of its design, as far removed from an aircraft (civilian or military) as it’s possible to be. There was no way the spiders could have been brought back to Earth at the end of each mission. The descent stages with their bug-like legs are still on the Moon (as they are likely to be for centuries to come), while the geometrical upper stages have long since crashed onto the lunar surface, either as a result of deliberate seismological experiments, or through the slow decay of their orbits. Each spider spun out its web between Earth and Moon and back again, tracing the trajectory along with the various components would fly. It was always the thinnest of threads and one that nearly broke completely on Apollo 13.

Space broadcaster Reg Turnill: it’s intriguing to wonder what Turnill’s commentaries on the Apollo missions might have been like had he actually flown on one of these expeditions: “And we’re coming up now on the far side of the Moon; it really is an awe inspiring and desolate landscape, utterly unlike anything on the Earth.”

The Apollo configuration may not look very futuristic now but at the time it was science fiction made real; the lunar-bug was pure H.G. Wells, one of the very machines which the Martian’s themselves inhabited as they sought to enslave the Earth. It was and is a thing of the future, an object whose purpose is immediately apparent; there could never be any mistaking its design. It will still look futuristic a hundred years from now. And it looked right no matter which way up or around it floated. It remains to this day an inspiring sight, part of an engineering feat that still stands as a challenge to the current generation of space scientists and engineers, as Thomas Kelly affirms at the end of this book:

“I wish my children and grandchildren …the joy of continuing this exciting quest.  As they look up at the Moon’s glowing, seductive face, I hope they’ll be inspired to still greater efforts by what we have done. Perhaps technology will let them look down on the Moon through their own computers, zooming in on each of the six lunar modules that sit in timeless isolation astride the foot-printed dust of a once active lunar base. Why, I can see them up there with my naked yeses – can’t you?”

Mark Stewart, FBIS
BIS Honorary Archival Librarian/Editor (Odyssey)
[email protected]

Further reading: Odyssey recommends:
From the BIS Archives: Last and First Men – Buzz Aldrin and the BIS

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