Remembering Alan Bean
Alan Bean, Apollo 12 and Skylab 3 astronaut, died today in Houston following a brief illness. The 86 year old former Navy test pilot joined NASA with the third group of astronauts in 1963. Besides his spaceflights, Bean backed up Gemini 10, Apollo 9, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, among other duties, before retiring from the astronaut corps in 1975 to work at NASA as a civilian. He is well known for his work as an artist, creating unique paintings expressing experiences on the Moon, sometimes made with lunar tools and samples with remnants of regolith.
Bean’s life and accomplishments in the space program are only half of what makes him special - only half of why I’m writing this article. His sense of humor and cheeriness were infectious, and his way with words made his literally otherworldly stories relatable, though still retaining their grand and fantastic elements. This vibe came through whether you saw him in person, a documentary, interview, or panel. The space community really cherished him, and people frequently looked forward to seeing him at events like Spacefest in Tucson, AZ, where I got to meet him.
The conversation I had with Al is, in itself, a great example of what he was like. Though we only spoke briefly, he took all the nervousness out of the interaction, making me feel entirely at ease. He was clearly interested in what I had to say, rather than guiding the discussion himself. I wanted to ask him about something he said in philosopher Frank White’s renowned book The Overview Effect.
When asked by White about the emotional aspects of travelling to another planet, particularly looking up at the tiny Earth in the black sky, Bean replied that these compelling emotions did not pervade too often during the mission itself; and when they did, they had to be pushed aside. He used art and painting to express his point. Naturally, artists want a piece to evoke an emotional response from their audience. However, to accomplish this, they must focus on the technical details of creating the piece, rather than the emotion itself. During spaceflight, being too distracted from the technical details could cause mistakes that cancel the mission, or worse, decide your fate. To effectively complete this compelling experience and return home safely, he had to compartmentalize his feelings about it. Only when he got back to Earth did he have time to process the philosophical implications of what he had experienced.
His connection of the astronaut mantra and artwork is compelling to me, so I asked Al about it at Spacefest VII in 2016. After refreshing his memory on what he said in the interview, he seemed delighted and intrigued to reiterate. I added that I had found his point-of-view particularly helpful, as an amateur musician who sometimes makes mistakes because I feel the emotion while trying to play the song itself. He listened intently, wanted to understand, thought before speaking, and was not distracted by people surrounding us. For those moments, I was the focus of his attention. After me, he would focus on the next person. Whomever he talked to, he gave everything he had. Others I know all report the same thing. He was even known to sit with his luncheon or banquet table long after the lunch or dinner had ended, continuing the conversation, making sure every person got what they wanted.
He was just a nice, good-hearted man, even to total strangers asking him questions and requesting autographs. That same Spacefest, his stories during Emily Carney’s first Skylab panel brought the house down with laughter. Only he could tell these stories and make them funny in that certain way. As the commander of Skylab 3, he and his crewmates were the second crew to live and work onboard the station. Rendezvous and docking are already a stressful and crucial part of spaceflight. With Bean at the controls during these procedures, crewmate Jack Lousma reported that a thruster had just floated by the window. Obviously, this was not good! Once the bizarre nature of the malfunction was relayed, the crew and mission control began to work the problem, which turned out to be caused by a propellant leak. In freefall, the liquid propellant had filled the thruster nozzle and frozen in its shape. When the frozen propellant was nudged loose during docking, it floated by the window, appearing to be the thruster itself!
The crew of Apollo 12 is known for being one of the friendliest and funniest crews. They were best friends, and would have spent time together regardless of training time for the mission. Apollo 12's CMP Dick Gordon, speaking on the Apollo panel at Spacefest, said of all the guys who went to the Moon, he was the luckiest because he got to go with his two best friends. A whole episode of the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, “That’s All There Is”, centers on their relationship; and includes the infamous SCE-to-AUX incident, which baffled Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon. Bean’s knowledge of the Command Module’s instrument panel was crucial in saving the mission from abort during launch, after a lightning strike confused the electronics of the spacecraft.
Along with Al’s passing comes the sad occurrence that only 4 moonwalkers are alive, and the entire crew of Apollo 12 is no longer with us either. Wherever Apollo 12 may be now, I imagine they are racing around the Cape in their identical Corvettes.
Al was at his best in the acclaimed documentary film In the Shadow of the Moon. Mike Collins of Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 remarked to me once that Bean had the best statements in that film, and I couldn’t agree more. It is with one of his segments that I conclude this memoriam. So, rest in peace Alan Bean; and godspeed on your next adventure.
"I have not complained about the weather one single time. I'm glad there is weather. I've not complained about traffic. I'm glad there are people around. One of the things that I did when I got home - I went down to shopping centers, and I'd just go around there, get an ice cream cone or something, just watch the people go by, and think: "Boy, we're lucky to be here. Why do people complain about the Earth? We are living in the garden of Eden."
Images Courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise.
Cover Image - Alan Bean on the Moon. Courtesy of ALSJ. NASA, AS12-48-7135.
Apollo 12 crew photo - NASA, KSC-69PC-560
Carney, Emily, Alan Bean, Vance Brand, Leonard David, Charles Dietrich, Jack Lousma, Seymour Liebergot, Russell Schweickart, and Paul Weitz. "Skylab Panel." Lecture, Spacefest VII, JW Marriott Starr Pass, Tucson, AZ, June 10, 2016.
Howes, Nick, Rick Armstrong, Alan Bean, Walter Cunningham, Richard Gordon, Fred Haise, James Lovell, Bruce McCandless, and Alfred Worden. "Apollo Panel." Lecture, Spacefest VII, JW Marriott Starr Pass, Tucson, AZ, June 10, 2016.
In the Shadow of the Moon. Directed by David Sington and Christopher Riley. Performed by Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Eugene Cernan, Michael Collins, Charlie Duke, James Lovell, Edgar Mitchell, Harrison Schmitt, David Scott, John Young. United Kingdom: Vertigo Films, 2007. DVD.
White, Frank. The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.