In November of 1969, the world watched in awe as Apollo 12 launched into space, carrying astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad, Richard F. Gordon Jr., and Alan L. Bean on a mission to land on the Moon. But what many people may not know is that the third stage of the rocket that carried them into space had a mysterious journey of its own.
After the astronauts and lunar module had detached from the second stage, it was supposed to have entered a trajectory that would send it harmlessly into space, where it would eventually burn up upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. However, something went wrong.
Instead of following its intended path, the third stage of the Apollo 12 rocket went into orbit around the sun. It remained there, unnoticed and largely forgotten, for nearly 30 years.
Then, in 2002, a team of amateur astronomers discovered an object in space that appeared to be the missing third stage of the Apollo 12 rocket. They alerted NASA, which confirmed that the object was indeed the long-lost third stage.
NASA tracked the third stage for several months, studying its trajectory and using it as an opportunity to test their tracking and communication capabilities. Eventually, the third stage drifted too far away to be effectively tracked, and it once again faded into obscurity.
The mysterious journey of the Apollo 12 third stage serves as a reminder of the incredible feats of engineering and human achievement that took place during the space race of the 1960s and 70s. It also highlights the enduring fascination that space holds for people all over the world, as evidenced by the curiosity and dedication of the amateur astronomers who helped bring this forgotten piece of history back to the attention of the world.
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