The life and legend of astronaut Pete Conrad comes to life in a book by his widow, Nancy

by Michelle Evans, May 2005


“I’m not the man they think I am at home—oh no, no, no. I’m the Rocket man.”

Elton John certainly provided the world with a great piece of music back in May 1972. There are few rock songs as identifiable to the space community as Rocketman. The only other that immediately comes to mind is David Bowie’s Space Oddity. However, Elton John not only gave us a wonderful song, he also provided the inspiration for one of the better books on the subject of space exploration.


Screenwriter Howard A. Klausner (Space Cowboys) was asked by Nancy Conrad to co-author a book about her late husband, astronaut Pete Conrad. Howard liked Nancy and had always admired Pete’s career in spaceflight, but he didn’t think he was the right guy for the job.


That is until he got back in his car after being interviewed by Nancy, turned over the engine and cranked up the radio, only to immediately hear Elton John expounding on the foibles of being an astronaut. The moment Rocketman came on the air, Howard knew that he was destined to turn the car around and tell Nancy he would do the project. Oh, he also told her he had the perfect title for the book.


Now Nancy and Howard’s book, Rocketman, is out there for us to read. It is the life of Pete Conrad. Pete was the third man to set foot on the Moon as commander of Apollo 12 in December 1969. This came after two stints in space aboard Gemini spacecraft, and a later ride to become the hero that saved the Skylab space station from total oblivion.


As Nancy says, Pete never wanted to just write a book about going to the Moon and picking up some rocks. This book is about the life of an extraordinary guy who also just happened to fly to the Moon.


In another in the fantastic series of events held at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego, Nancy came by in late May to tell us about Pete and to sign copies of Rocketman. The Orange County Space Society was excited to be present and to provide a display of space memorabilia to the public that joined us that day.


Francis French introduced Nancy, saying what many of us always felt about Pete’s adventures, “What a shame he never wrote a book.” But then Francis continued, “I realized that this book did get written, it just took a long time to finally come into print. It’s a high-octane read, it grabs you by the first page and you’re off. It’s like having an afterburner behind you.”


Nancy came to the podium and you could tell right away that she was relaxed with her subject. After all, she had spent many years with Pete, and it was obviously a very deep and enjoyable relationship. As Nancy told us about the moment she met Pete, “That was June 20, 1988, and it started a conversation that really never ended, it just got bigger and better and more wonderful over the years we were together. He was always at Mach 7 going somewhere. We had quite a ride together.”


Yet Pete was not the kind of person you would expect to someday be recognizable around the world. “If you look at Pete’s childhood,” Nancy said, “you’re really looking for a recipe for disaster. You’re looking at a kid that should have been a washout. He was dyslexic, his father imbibed a bit too much, his parents got a divorce at a time when divorce was not the norm, and his mother raised him. They moved out of a huge home to a carriage house on the top of someone’s garage. All the Brooks Brothers clothes got traded out for thrift shop clothes.”


But one day Pete’s inherited wild hair tickled him into wanting a ride in an airplane, and not just a ride, but to be at the controls. As Nancy explains, “Through flying, he began to learn how to learn and he taught himself how to learn.”


His life took off. He had been dumped from a prestigious prep school, yet that, and the impetus from flying, turned his life upside down. Instead of hitting the road on his old Indian motorcycle, never to be seen again, Pete started to excel in school, to the point that he earned a full Naval ROTC scholarship to Princeton. From there, Pete’s rollercoaster never seemed to stop climbing to higher and higher peaks.


You might think that taking a ride to the Moon on your third flight into space would be the highest peak you could ever achieve. Not so with Pete. He always told anyone that would listen that his greatest achievement in space was actually the Skylab mission. He and his fellow crewmates, Joe Kerwin and Paul Weitz, saved America’s first space station when most had given up hope. His biggest regret came in 1979 when Skylab was allowed to burn up in the atmosphere instead of becoming the way point for more trips father out into space.


Not to say that landing on the Moon wasn’t something he treasured. Remember that his first word on the surface was, “Whoopee!”

In the end, Pete believed in space travel. He wanted everyone to participate. When Bill Gaubatz at McDonnell Douglas came into his office and told him about a reusable launch vehicle test bed to be called the DC-X, or Delta Clipper Experimental, Pete immediately said he was in.


Unfortunately, on the final flight of the Delta Clipper, a small mistake caused the vehicle to topple over on landing and explode. Cherie Rabideau asked Nancy, “What was his reaction when he saw the DC-X fall over?”


To which Nancy replied, “He was laughing. Remember that I said to you when he gets scared, he laughs. He loved that bird, I mean he loved that bird. When I went into the operations center, he was laughing and he said, ‘That’s why we have experimental programs.’ At that time, Dan Goldin was the NASA Administrator. NASA had taken over the DC-X, and Dan came out and said, ‘If this bird crashes, we’ll just build another one.’ Of course, it crashed, and they forgot how to spell D-C-X.”


Now the dreams of Pete Conrad are finally coming to life. The flights in 2004 of SpaceShipOne proved that space tourism can be made real. How would Pete feel if he were with us today? According to Nancy, “This is stuff that Pete was working on ten years ago. I wish he were still on the planet. First of all, he would jump up and click his heels and be thrilled to death it was happening, but my guess is he would probably be the one doing it.”


“It's just my job five days a week. A rocket man, a rocket man.”