Alan Bean — the fourth man to walk on the moon, one of the first Americans to live aboard a space station, and a man who left spaceflight to devote the second half of his life to painting — died Saturday in Houston. He was 86.
With Bean’s passing, only four living people have walked on the moon: Buzz Aldrin, 88; Dave Scott, 85; Charlie Duke, 82; and Harrison Schmitt, 82. The eight other people who landed on the moon during NASA’s Apollo program in the late 1960s and early 1970s have died, as have all the original seven astronauts in the Mercury space program.
After Bean received an engineering degree from the University of Texas at Austin, he was assigned to the United States Navy, becoming an aviator and later a test pilot. NASA selected him in 1963 as a member of the third class of astronauts. After his astronaut training and a few stints as a backup crew member, Bean received his commission as the lunar module pilot for Apollo 12, which was NASA’s second mission to the lunar surface in November 1969.
save Apollo 12
Bean proved his worth for the mission just seconds after the Saturn V rocket with the Apollo Command Module and Lunar Module lifted off the ground. Then the big booster was struck by lightning. The lightning strikes knocked many of the sensors and instruments in the Apollo Command Module offline, and the spacecraft began sending nonsensical telemetry data to the ground. More disturbingly, the lightning had wiped out the Command Module’s carefully calibrated navigation and navigation platform. Shortly after the attacks, mission commander Pete Conrad Jr. called to Houston.
“Okay, we just lost the platform, gang,” Conrad said. “I don’t know what happened here; we dropped everything in the world.”
In one of the most celebrated moments in Mission Control history, a flight controller named John Aaron recalled seeing a similar pattern of nonsensical telemetry data when power was sent to a piece of hardware in the command module called the “Signal Conditioning Equipment” (SCE). has failed. Aaron concluded that putting this SCE box in backup mode would bring it back online.
“Try SCE to Aux,” Aaron told Gerry Griffin, Apollo 12 flight director. Griffin didn’t recognize the command, but agreed to pass it on to the command module. Conrad, the mission commander, didn’t recognize it either. However, Bean did. He found and flipped the correct switch. Almost immediately, Mission Control began receiving good telemetry data, which gave Griffin the data he needed to release the crew to continue its flight to orbit. (The incident was dramatized with a fairly high degree of accuracy in a 1998 episode of the HBO miniseries from the earth to the moon.)
Audio from the Command Module reveals that, just minutes after this near-disaster and even before the crew reached orbit, the sober astronauts joked about the incident. A few days later, NASA had landed safely on the moon for the second time.
Bean would fly into space a second time in 1973 as part of the second manned mission to the Skylab space station. With two other crew members, he spent 59 days in space as NASA expanded its science activities in low Earth orbit and began experimenting with long-duration spaceflights.
Bean stayed with NASA through the 1970s, but left the space program in 1981, just as the new space shuttle was making its maiden flight and beginning a new phase of human spaceflight.
Astronaut to art
“I loved being an astronaut; I thought about flying the space shuttle, but I said you know there are a lot of young men and women around who can fly the space shuttle just as well or better,” recalled he himself later . “But there is no one around who has been to the moon, who has taken part in one of the great adventures of mankind, who wants to represent it in any other way.”
That other way was painting. The Apollo astronauts, of course, had done a lot of work capturing their experiences on the moon in photos, video and audio. But after being there, Bean felt that art could capture the spirit of Apollo in a different, more human way.
His paintings showed astronauts doing some things they actually did, and some they wish they had done. (For example in the fantasy, Apollo 12 Command Module pilot Richard Gordon stands next to Bean and Conrad on the lunar surface). Although the moon was a stark, gray place, Bean added the color of the human imagination to his paintings.
Shuttle astronaut Nicole Stott, who also pursued art after retiring from NASA, told Ars the following:
I am heartbroken to hear of the loss of this world from Alan Bean. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received is that he called me a kindred spirit. This was a bit overwhelming because he’s one of my heroes – one of my superheroes, actually, of spaceflight and art. I first met him shortly after I retired from NASA to continue my next adventure as an artist. He welcomed me into his studio, shared his own story about the transition from astronaut to artist, guided me through his entire creative process for his beautiful paintings, and encouraged me to pursue the art I love. I am so grateful for a mentor and friend like Alan Bean. I will always cherish his thoughtfulness and his beautiful smile, and we are all blessed by the legacy of his amazing artwork.
After they left NASA, most of the other Apollo astronauts moved to other locations. Bean remained in Houston near Johnson Space Center, where he established his art studio. Through his paintings, he hoped to inspire future explorers from the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere to not only boldly venture to these frontiers, but also bring a little whimsy and humanity with them.