Astronaut Alan Bean, who recently passed away at the age of 86, was best known for being the fourth man to walk on the moon back in 1969 during the Apollo 12 mission. But many probably don't realize how he saved the mission from almost certain disaster shortly after takeoff.
Apollo 12 launched during a rainstorm, when, 36 seconds after lift-off, disaster struck. The rocket was hit by lightning.
Twenty-six seconds later, disaster struck again with a second lightning strike.
Long story short, protective circuit breakers were thrown because the rocket's electrical system falsely detected overloads and a bunch of the rocket's instrumentation panels went crazy and malfunctioned. Though the rocket was flying correctly, Bean, the mission's systems engineer during flight, and his two fellow astronauts were essentially flying blind.
Without missing a beat, John Aaron, Mission Control's Electrical, Environmental and Consumables Manager on the ground recalled a similar situation in pre-launch testing and made a key call:
Aaron: "Apollo 12, Houston. Try SCE to Auxiliary. Over."
Charles Conrad (Apollo 12 Commander): "Try FCE to Auxiliary. What the hell is that?"
Aaron: "SCE. SCE to Auxiliary."
Conrad: "Try the buses. Get the buses back on the line."
Bean: "It looks…everything looks good."
Within seconds, Bean saved the day because he remembered the SCE auxiliary switch from a training incident a year earlier when the same failure had been simulated. The other two astronauts did not recall where that switch was located.
Thankfully, the lightning strikes did not cause any serious damage. The mission was a complete success.
What is amazing about this whole episode — which you can listen to in the archived communication transmissions or read in the transcript in NASA's archives — is how surprisingly calm the astronauts and the Mission Control flight directors are during the calamity. Bean and company fall back to their training and mental check lists.
No one panics.
At this point in the capital markets cycle, it would be good if we could channel our “inner-Bean” and prepare our expectations for a rougher ride. Equity markets will be more volatile in future, especially more volatile than in the recent past. At some point a bear market will be upon us. We are due; it has been almost 10 years since the last one.
Investors should expect those market-induced lightning strikes to hit. But when they come, investors need not panic. Their "training" and "mental check lists" are understanding and believing in the importance of having a financial plan and sticking to a long-term term investment horizon. By doing this, mission accomplished.
R.I.P. Alan Bean.