It was an overcast day at Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, on November 13, 1969, and Apollo 12—mankind’s second endeavor to the moon—was underway. The Saturn V rocket had successfully lifted off in full view of President Richard Nixon, a crowd of onlookers and national television cameras.
Exactly 36.5 seconds after launch, crewmen on board noticed a bright flash outside. Their warning panel lit up like Times Square. Unbeknownst to the crewmen and mission control, lightning had struck the rocket. Three electrical power-producing fuel cells went offline immediately, and the flight controllers’ computer displays turned to gibberish. Griffin and his men needed to act soon and decisively to avoid aborting the mission and halting the space program in its tracks.
Griffin turned to John Aaron, his electrical, environmental and communications specialist, to make the split-second call. Aaron’s suggestion was unfamiliar: “Tell him to try flipping SCE [Signal Conditioning Equipment] to auxiliary,” Griffin recalls Aaron saying.
“That’s exactly what he said: 'try,'” Griffin said. Aaron wasn’t sure if flipping the switch would fix the problem, but it was his only idea based on something he’d seen months before during a ground test. “Through hours and hours of simulations with guys throwing failures at us and seeing how we handled them, we never touched the SCE switch,” Griffin said.
Regardless, Griffin trusted his controllers and told the capsule communicator to relay the information to the Apollo 12 crewmen. After some confusion from astronaut Pete Conrad, fellow astronaut Alan Bean found the switch among hundreds of identical others.
The gamble paid off. As soon as Bean flipped the mystery switch, mission control received the correct data, allowing flight controllers to quickly resolve the problem and avert disaster. Griffin’s team barely had time to let out a sigh of relief before they were focused and back to work. It was just another day at the office.