Astronaut Pete Conrad swaps piloting tips with balloonist Gregg Rasske.
Astronaut Pete Conrad swaps piloting tips with balloonist Gregg Rasske.

“He was the third man to walk on the Moon.
“He was the first to dance on it.
“He was the Rocketman.”

— Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.

      While everyone celebrates Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic steps on the moon Saturday, I’ll be rooting for No. 3: Charles “Pete” Conrad.

     Elton John has since appropriated the title, but the original “rocketman” — according to the 2005 biography written by his wife Nancy — was Pete.
I met the rocketman in 1997 when he set foot on a surface almost as beautiful as the lunar landscape: the northwestern shore of Green Lake.

     As commander of Apollo 12, the little-know third man to walk on the moon was every bit as heroic as his predecessors, and definitely more colorful.
Ripon resident Gregg Rasske introduced me to the fellow who was the first (and possibly last) among the 12 moon men to dance on the moon. Gregg called me one Saturday morning in June 1997.

     “Want to go up today?” he asked, knowing I didn’t go anywhere without my Canon AE-1.

     Only after I met the Majestic Balloon on the lakeshore just north of Roger Williams Inn at the Green Lake Conference Center did I realize my fellow passenger would be a guy who’d ridden in rockets and fighter jets, but who until this weekend had never floated in a lighter-than-aircraft.

     “My father was a balloon pilot in World War I,” Pete told me. “He never gave me a ride in a balloon and I never gave him a ride in a rocket.” ...

     This is the man who, humming while stepping on the moon, then declared: “Whoopie! That may have been one small step for Neil, but it’s a long one for me!” ...

     My most vivid recollection of ballooning with the astronaut was watching him gaze, mouth agape, at an airplane flying above us.

     In that instant I realized I was in a spontaneous convergence of three generations of flight: sharing a balloon with a rocketman as we watched a commercial jet. ...

To read the entire column, see the July 18, 2019 edition of The Ripon Commonwealth Press.