Apollo 12 astronaut Richard Gordon, who circled moon, dies

NASA via Associated Press

Astronaut Richard Gordon Jr. Gordon, one of a dozen men who flew around the moon but didn't land there.

By Richard Goldstein New York Times  

NEW YORK — Richard Gordon, who undertook what became a harrowing and abortive spacewalk in a 1966 NASA mission, then orbited the moon three years later, but never achieved his dream of walking on the lunar surface, died Monday at his home in San Marcos, Calif. He was 88.

His death was confirmed by NASA.


Mr. Gordon and Charles Conrad flew in the September 1966 Gemini 11 mission to advance the technique for the rendezvous and docking of two spacecraft, a procedure required for moon landings. They soared to 850 miles above the Earth, setting a record for manned spaceflight.

Mr. Gordon piloted the command module Yankee Clipper during its orbit of the moon in November 1969 while Conrad and his fellow Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean carried out the first extensive moon walks, four months after the pioneering Apollo 11 mission that sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon.

After taking photos of the moon’s topography to scout tentative landing sites for future missions, Mr. Gordon performed docking maneuvers, allowing his fellow astronauts to return to the capsule in the lunar lander that had descended from it.

“The name of the game as far as I was concerned was to walk on the moon, and at that time I was relegated not to do that,” Mr. Gordon told a NASA interviewer in 1999 when asked if he was disappointed that he had to remain 60 miles above the lunar surface after having come so far.

“I had a job and a function to perform,” he continued. “And I was happy for them.”


Bean, in an interview on Tuesday, said, “Dick Gordon was the perfect crew member in that he was easy to get along with all the time, and no matter what happened he never got upset, through the ups and downs of training.”

Mr. Gordon’s missions also included two troublesome episodes.

He emerged from the Gemini 11 cabin for a spacewalk that was to last an hour and 47 minutes after a separately launched unmanned space vehicle, the Agena, had docked with it. He was tethered to his Gemini capsule. But he quickly experienced difficulty stabilizing himself while trying to carry out various tasks.

He accomplished some of his scheduled assignments in his first 10 minutes, but the work was so arduous that he was perspiring into his helmet, temporarily losing vision in one eye, and his heart rate soared. He rested outside the Gemini for another half-hour, but had to reenter it because he was too drained to continue.

“Our understanding of spacewalking was still not good,” Chris Kraft, the director of flight operations for the mission, recalled in his 2001 memoir, “Flight.” “His strength was fading rapidly and his frustrations were growing apace.’’

Mr. Gordon, a Seattle native, later spent more than two hours standing in an open hatch of the Gemini 11 spacecraft taking photographs for analysis by astronomers.


There was trouble anew for Mr. Gordon, and a worrisome moment as well for his two fellow astronauts, in the first minute of their blastoff during a thunderstorm from Cape Kennedy, Fla., in Apollo 12.

Lightning twice struck the craft, and warning lights flashed on the astronauts’ console, signaling that the electrical and primary guidance systems had been knocked out. Batteries took over, but the systems were restored quickly and the flight continued without further electrical problems.