Only 12 humans have ever walked on the surface of the Moon, and Alan Bean is one of them. Bean was a naval aviator and test pilot when he was selected for NASA’s third astronaut group in 1963. In terms of spaceflight, Bean is best known as the Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 12, becoming the fourth man in history to walk on the Moon in November 1969. In 1973, he was named Commander of the second Skylab crew and spent a record-breaking 59 days in Earth orbit. The Skylab program is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
After retiring from NASA, Bean was able to devote more time to his work as an artist – a passion that had been largely on hold during his years as an astronaut. He uses art to share personal memories of the Apollo program, adding texture to his paintings with real moon dust, bits of spacesuit patches, the geology hammer that he used to plant a flag on the Moon, and other tools from his time in space.
Bean graciously consented to an in-person interview with Career Thoughts’ writer Becca Gladden at Spacefest V in Tucson, where he was exhibiting his artwork and sharing tales of his remarkable career as a pioneering space explorer. See a gallery of his paintings at www.alanbeangallery.com.
Q. Tell me a little bit about your career as a Navy pilot and astronaut.
A. I’ve had, really, three wonderful careers. When I was a boy growing up and in high school, I wanted to be a Navy pilot and, fortunately, I won a Navy ROTC – Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps – scholarship to the University of Texas. I studied Aeronautical Engineering and then I went off to flight training and became a Navy pilot and loved it. I loved what we did, flying airplanes and the like, and I found out on shipboard that they had a lot of different kinds of planes – in a squadron, you only have one kind of airplane. I thought, “Boy, I’d like to fly those other airplanes, too,” and they said, “Well, look, if you can become a test pilot, then you can fly them all,” and I thought that was a good idea. With my background as an aeronautical engineer and as a pilot, I became a test pilot and liked that, and, incidentally, that’s when I began to take art in night school. It just looked like something that would be interesting to me, so I enrolled at St. Mary’s College.
Back to the career as a Navy pilot and an astronaut, they took me as an astronaut in 1963 and I came to Houston and trained with my fellow candidates and other astronauts. Then, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to Apollo 12 with Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon. We were going to make the second lunar landing, and we did. It was great fun flying to the Moon with your best friends and coming home and doing all those amazing things.
As far as that career, it was just wonderful – a lot of hard work, but a lot of luck, too – to get the chance, the opportunity to do the hard work. I was never the best pilot in the squadron. I was never the smartest kid in school or any of that stuff. But, with a lot of luck along the way, I was able to just suddenly find myself on the Moon in 1969 as the fourth human to walk there.
I came back and I wanted to command a mission – Skylab was the next program – so I did; I was lucky enough to command the second Skylab mission, which was 59 days long. We were in orbit 260 miles above the Earth for 59 days. At that time, it was the longest that any American had ever done. We loved working together – this was Jack Lousma, a Marine, Owen Garriott, a civilian scientist – and we were a good team up there. We enjoyed it and spent our 59 days, came home, and then I backed up the Russian mission. That was fun, too, and I had Jack Lousma with me on that.
Then, I looked around. I was training to fly the shuttle and everything was going good, and I thought, “You know, there are a lot of young men and women here that can fly the shuttle as good as I can or better.” Maybe I ought to think about taking my art interest, which wasn’t that much then, and if I could maybe become a better artist, then I could tell stories about this great adventure that was Apollo that would be lost forever. And I said, “If I stay and fly the shuttle, that’s good, it would be fun, and then no one will do this other job.” But, if I was willing to leave this great job of being an astronaut – which I’d worked my whole life for – I could then maybe leave a legacy of stories and images. I thought, “Gee, I wish some artist had gone along with Magellan or some artist had gone along with Columbus. It would be fun to see what they did and what the Indians looked like.” I always laugh and say, “Maybe Columbus fell out of the little boat when he went ashore,” and it would be fun to paint. So, if I can do this, maybe I can make a contribution and leave a legacy.
I left the (space) program some 31 years ago and I said I’m going to tell these stories as best I can, so I had to learn to be a better artist. That’s what I’ve been doing since then and it’s been very rewarding. I feel like I have a duty every day to try to do the best I can, because I was blessed and lucky enough to get to go to the Moon. Like I said, I was never the best – it just worked out – and so I feel like this was a gift that was given to me and I’m trying then, to some degree, to pay back the gift and leave stories that would otherwise not be known or would be forgotten. That’s what I do now and I enjoy it very much.
I like being an artist and I think I’m the only astronaut that I know of that has a second career that he likes as much as being an astronaut. It’s different, but it’s just as challenging and it’s just as rewarding to me. Most astronauts would find it very boring to be an artist – it’s not something they would connect with at all – but, somehow, with me, it did connect.
This brings up a thought up for your readers: You’ve got to follow your own dream. People advised me not to study art. They said I ought to go play golf with senior officers in the Navy, that it would be better for my career. I said, “I don’t care about that. I care about doing the things in my life that are important to me.” So, it worked out okay, and I think it usually does. You’ve got to spend a lot of your time in your life doing what’s important to you, because we’re not here that long and I know many, many people die and they’ve never done the life that they really wanted to do. They had to do other things. You have to find a way to do the things you believe are the right things for you.
Q. Your artwork is so beautiful. It’s really breathtaking. I read that you use actual moon dust in some of the paintings?
A. That’s a good story. I wanted to make my paintings special, naturally, because they’re of the Moon and every other artist in all of history just imagined what the Moon was like. So, after I’d been doing it a while, maybe three or four years, and I spent all my effort just trying to make an image that would like good, I said, “You know, I’ve got some tools that I had on the Moon, moon boots and a hammer and the like. Maybe I could make some texture in my paintings that’s different from other artists – earthbound artists – and I did that. I learned to do it. I couldn’t do it at first. I tried and it didn’t look good but, after a number of paintings, I got to where I could do that pretty well.
After doing a number of paintings with this texture of moon boots and hammer marks and core tube bit marks and things like that, I said, “You know, I wish I had some moon dust.” But, they never gave us any moon rocks or anything like that. One day, I was sitting at my desk and I was looking up at a plaque on the wall where they’d given me the patches from my suit – the Apollo 12, NASA, and American flag (patches) – and I said, “That’s nice, I really like it.” It meant a lot to me. And then I looked at the ones they gave me for Skylab, and the Skylab ones were nice and clean, but the Apollo ones were dirty. And I said to myself, “Well, maybe I need to get those washed, you know, so they’d look nice.”
The more I thought about it, a little bit later, I thought, those things are dirty with moon dust from the Ocean of Storms, and if I would be willing to cut them up and put them in my paintings, then I would have moon dust in my paintings – not enough that you could measure, but definitely moon dust from the Ocean of Storms. I thought about that a lot, because I liked those emblems, and I said, “Well, I’m devoting the rest of my life to these paintings and I want the paintings to be as special as I can make them.” If I were to cut these things up and put them in, they would be special – more special than they were. So I decided to do that and this was seven or eight years after I’d been painting.
Good ideas don’t necessarily come all at once. That’s what I’ve been doing since then, but I’ve had to be very careful now, because the American flag has been cut down so that the stripes in front of the stars aren’t there any more – they’re in paintings – and my Apollo 12 patch is not round any more, it’s just a little segment. I laugh at myself frequently and say, “Boy, if I knew I was going to do this, I would have come over to Pete (Conrad) and said, ‘Rub some dirt on this thing. I really want these to be dirty!’” But, I never thought about art on the Moon. I never thought about art in training. I was a dedicated space guy and astronaut. Then, when I did change, I began thinking about art, which I hadn’t been thinking about at all.
It worked out good for me. There was a lot of luck involved and a lot of hard work. You’ve got to be willing to do the work and, if you’re not willing to do the work, you can’t have these good lives. I’ll see people on TV and all they’re doing is talking with their friends. They’re not going anywhere – they’re going to end up talking to their friends and that’s it. The guys and gals that do well – they talk to their friends once in a while, but mostly they’re trying to be a great banker, or they’re trying to be a great lawyer, or they’re trying to be a great journalist. They’re working at that and that’s what it takes. It’s like watching the people that are in the Super Bowl or the NBA finals. They’re working all the time to be great players.
People think that they’re just going to accidentally get to be great, but they’re not. They need to look at those professional athletes and Olympic athletes. Those guys work out seven days a week. They think about it. They eat everything just right. They make sacrifices to be great. If any of your readers want to be great at whatever it is they want be, they’ve got to work at it and practice it every day. They’ve got to practice. That’s the only way you get great.
Q. I grew up in an era when we idolized you guys and kids dreamed about being an astronaut when they grew up. Given the changes to the space program, the end of the shuttle era, the privatization of space exploration and NASA changing its focus, do you think that kids can still dream of being an astronaut?
A. Oh, definitely they can. It’s probably not going to be exactly the same way I did it, but the space world is going to gradually – not quickly – open up for more and more people to do more and more amazing things. It’s just going to take time. Also, for kids, they have no idea what the world is going to be like when they’re 20 or 30 or 40 – that’s the age I was when I did these things. They’ve got to be prepared for what they want and hopefully it will be available. If they don’t prepare now, somebody else is and they’ll get picked to go do these things. If they want to be astronauts, they need to get started. They need to stay in condition. They need to make good grades – the best they can make – in school. They need to learn to work with other people. They need to get a skill that NASA or a private industry might like, and hope that they get the chance.
I got more of a chance than I ever imagined. My dream was to be a pilot, because I could not imagine the future that was going to take place when I was 10 or 15 or 20. They can’t either and I can’t guess. None of us on this earth know what’s going to happen in 15 or 20 years. We have no idea. People say they do, but I’m telling you now, they don’t know. When it shows up, it will be a surprise and it will be better than now – better than now for whoever is willing to pay the price.
Not many people have walked on the moon, twelve to be precise and Alan Bean comes in at fourth position in this list. He travelled to the space two times in his career with NASA. Born on 15th of March, 1932, he became part of history when he went to the moon aboard the Apollo 12 mission in 1969, the fourth person to set foot on moon. This mission was successful thanks to some brilliant advice of John Aaron, a man sitting in ground control room. Apollo 12 spacecraft was get by lightening soon after it launched. As a result of this mishap, the spacecraft’s telemetry data was distorted. Aaron advised the crew to switch the Signal-Conditioning-Electronics, SCE, to AUX (auxiliary) port. It was only Bean who knew what Aaron was talking about, the rest of the crew did not understand his instruction Aaron was giving them. Bean’s timey response/action saved the mission, which NASA otherwise would have aborted because the instruments started malfunctioning due to the lighting strike, which it got hit with.
In the other manned space mission, Bean spent almost two months in space. Like many others, he was also serving in US Navy before NASA selected him in the 3rd astronaut group. In the Navy, he served as a Test-Pilot and performed duties in few other roles as well. In this interview, Bean talks about how luck played a crucial role in his career. He was at the right place, at the right time and that helped him have three very successful careers in his life, the first one in US Navy, the second as NASA astronaut, and third as a painter!
It was his love of art that made him leave space travelling and start painting. He wanted to capture his memories of moon landing and the whole experience in the form of paintings. Bean truly loves painting. He uses this clam environment to transfer his memories into art, something that will tell his stories to generations to come. He said that we should all follow our dreams no matter what other people say. The only way one can be happy is to do what he or she loves!
Bean was good at what he did back while he was travelling to space, but he is as good of a painter too! His paintings are beautiful. His artistic work is unique because it has something that other paintings don’t, moon dust from Apollo mission space suit. The level of details in his paintings is astonishing.