Life out of this world: the artist who walked on the moon
Apollo 12 astronaut and famed painter Alan Bean, the fourth person to walk on the moon, has died
Alan Bean, who has died at the age of 86, was the fourth of the 12 Americans to walk on the moon; four years later he commanded the three-man crew who spent 59 days aboard Nasa’s Skylab space station, which preceded the International Space Station.
He spent his post-astronaut life as a professional painter, recording his experiences and describing himself as “the first artist to walk on another world”.
Bean was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 12, the second Nasa mission to the moon in November 1969, only four months after the historic first landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11.
The launch of Apollo 12 was the only one witnessed in person by a US president. Richard Nixon attended with his wife and daughter – which was probably why the launch went ahead during a thunderstorm. Lightning struck the Saturn V rocket and its spacecraft twice, but while debating whether to abort the launch, the crew recovered control.
Bean’s role in salvaging the mission was crucial. When Mission Control radioed up an obscure command to reset the stricken electrical system (“Try SCE to Aux”) his friend and commander, Pete Conrad, was at a loss for what to do, staring at a bewildering array of flashing emergency lights. Bean, trawling the memories of his meticulous training, leaned forward and calmly flicked the correct switch.
Apollo 12’s most remarkable achievement was that, after a 386,000km journey from Earth, the spacecraft landed only 180m from its target, the unmanned Surveyor 3 spacecraft that had been soft-landed in the moon’s Ocean of Storms on a reconnaissance mission 31 months earlier.
Bean, photographed by Conrad, walked across to it and recovered the television camera and other components so that the long-term effects of exposure in harsh lunar conditions could be studied on Earth.
While the crew of Apollo 11 had spent less than three hours on the lunar surface, Bean and Conrad spent nearly eight hours exploring the Ocean of Storms. They deployed a package of six scientific instruments with a nuclear-powered battery which, with other instruments deployed on four subsequent missions, made it possible to send back details of moonquakes and other events for a further five years until they were finally abandoned by Nasa for reasons of economy.
Nevertheless, there were some setbacks. Premium advertising had been booked on US television networks for insertion during the first colour transmissions from the lunar surface. But these were abruptly ended when Bean, asked to move the TV camera to a better position during one of the astronauts’ two excursions on the surface, accidentally pointed it at the sun.
As a member of the MacBean Clan of Inverness-shire, Bean was proud of his Scottish ancestry and carried a swatch of MacBean tartan to the lunar surface inside his landing craft, Intrepid. He would depict the euphoric moment of his first steps on the lunar surface in his 1996 painting Clan MacBean Arrives on the Moon.
Bean also made a point of indulging his love of Italian food while in space, humorously insisting that he was the first person to eat spaghetti on the moon.
With the third crew member, Captain Richard Gordon, whose job was to remain in lunar orbit in the command module to bring them home again, the Apollo 12 team formed such a united and articulate trio that many thought that Nasa would have been better served if they had made the first landing.
Destined for space
Alan LaVern Bean was born at Wheeler, in the Texas panhandle, on March 15 1932. He was brought up in Louisiana, where his father was a US government scientist, and attended the RL Paschal High School in Fort Worth. After graduating in aeronautical engineering from the University of Texas in 1955, he joined the US Navy as a student.
During training as a test pilot one of his instructors was Charles “Pete” Conrad; both were selected respectively for the second and third group of astronauts.
While Conrad progressed rapidly in the highly competitive selection process for space missions, the artistically inclined Bean seemed destined to be nothing more than a back-up astronaut. But when a member of Conrad’s moon-landing crew was killed in a fighter-jet crash, Conrad insisted that Bean, his former pupil, should be the replacement for Apollo 12.
In 1972 Bean was given command of the second manned mission to the Skylab space station, created from the vast interior of a Saturn rocket’s 90-ton upper stage. Skylab suffered severe damage during the launch, but Conrad, who commanded the whole project, restored it to serviceability with some heroic spacewalks that involved physically pulling out the one remaining solar wing.
After Conrad’s return to Earth, Bean’s crew spent a record 59 days on board, attending to further repairs and using Skylab’s telescope to study solar flares. He was accompanied by two spiders, Anita and Arabella, which attracted much media attention by successfully spinning a somewhat misshapen web in the weightless conditions.
Although Bean and his crew fed the arthropods with dead flies, they died before returning to Earth. Nasa claimed that Bean’s crew accomplished “150%” of their pre-launch targets.
Bean next served as back-up commander of Apollo-Soyuz in 1975, the first Soviet-American docking in space, before resigning from Nasa in June 1981. He announced that, having seen sights that no artist had witnessed before, he would devote himself to trying to express them in his paintings.
For the next 35 years he produced an average of five or six acrylic paintings a year, in which he sought to express astronauts’ reactions to space flight. It was years before he was satisfied with his most important work, a self-portrait in a spacesuit submerged in dust, called That’s How It Felt to Walk On The Moon, trying to decide how much colour the human imagination added to the neutral whites and greys of a Nasa photograph.
He sold signed copies of this and other works on the Internet for up to $2,000 a time. Incorporated in the originals of many of his lunar landscapes were specks of moon dust recovered from his Apollo 12 spacesuit.
As an international lecturer and exponent of manned space flight, Bean was among the most successful of the post-mission astronauts, commanding full houses when he visited Britain in 2006 and 2013.
He was also one of the most approachable of the lunar astronauts, a humble and modest man who, unusually among test pilots, admitted to experiencing fear in space.
Counting down their final hours and minutes on the lunar surface in the cabin of their small craft, Bean could not help nervously thinking of the single engine at his back that was their only way home. But it fired flawlessly, right on time, and propelled him and Conrad back to their colleague, Gordon, who was waiting in lunar orbit to transport them on the three-day voyage back to Earth.
Upon his safe return, Bean relished the simplest of earthly pleasures: sitting on his own in Houston’s huge Galleria mall, eating ice cream and watching the passers-by, marvelling at the mundane miracle of human existence.
“Don’t look for heaven elsewhere,” he said. “I’ve seen the Earth as a ball in the empty black sky. This is heaven.”
He firmly believed that one day a painting of his would hang in a gallery on the moon.
Alan Bean’s first marriage to Sue Ragsdale, a schoolteacher, was dissolved in 1977. He then married Leslie Clem, a medical executive with whom he settled in Houston, Texas. There he had his art studio and kept their boisterous Lhasa Apso dogs. She survives him with a son and a daughter from his first marriage.
• Alan Bean, born on March 15 1932, died on May 26 2018.