Apollo astronaut, artist regales Rice crowd with adventures on the moon and beyond
It shows Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon, and lunar module crewmate Pete Conrad flanking Dick Gordon, whom Bean described as “kind of a showboat,” all taking a bow for their NASA bosses from the surface.
Of course, Gordon never landed. In the six Apollo missions that put men on the moon from 1969 to 1972, one of the three crewmembers always stayed behind to pilot the command module, the lifeboat that brought the astronauts home.
But the painting by Bean shows perfectly the impact the experience had on his life during 18 years at NASA and in all the years since as an artist dedicated to sharing the feeling of making such a journey to everyone who will look and listen. To Bean, all 400,000 people who worked on Apollo are part of the brotherhood.
“I did this painting on commission for a company, and when Pete got killed, I thought, ‘Which painting did I do that meant the most to me?’ And I thought of this one. And I went and bought it back from that company for a lot more than they paid. It’s in my studio now, and it’s not going anywhere,” he said. “I look at it every day.”
The astronaut and artist enthralled an overflow crowd at Duncan Hall on March 21 in the final Space Frontiers Lecture of the year where he told stories and imparted philosophy about how the human race got to the moon and what it all meant.
The lecture is online for all to see at the Rice Space Institute website, but it was hard to capture on screen the energy in the room as Bean, 81, delivered one anecdote after another about the Apollo program and the role he played. Rarely standing still for more than a minute, he took the audience through training, the legendary meeting where the Apollo crews were assigned and the feeling of launching the biggest rocket ever to leave the planet.
“I had never felt anything shake like that,” Bean said. “When that started shaking, I said to myself, ‘Do the engineers know it’s shaking this much?’ I wondered if metal can withstand this kind of vibration. That’s absolutely what I thought.”
But that power was what it took to get to the moon and what it will take to go back, Bean said. “Rockets aren’t like cellphones,” he said. “There are only one or two customers.”
He said the experience of one-sixth gravity on the moon is just as delightful as it sounds, even while wearing a clumsy moon suit and hundreds of Earth pounds of equipment. “It felt like the strongest day of my life,” he said. “When I jumped I could go up real high. … It was just fun.”
The first time he fell on the moon, Conrad helped him up so fast that both stumbled. The second time, Conrad pulled him up with a single finger, a scene captured in a Bean painting.
The crewmates seriously discussed taking an arrowhead to the moon, dropping it onto the surface and casually panning the video camera past it. “And then we’ll hear from Mission Control about 30 seconds later, ‘Point the TV at your feet!’” Bean said, laughing at the anticipated reaction from Houston. He recalled, on his return, seeing a drugstore tabloid that blared “Dinosaur Bones on the Moon” – with his picture next to a whale skeleton on the lunar surface. He was instantly glad they decided against the prank. “I love scientists, but they don’t have a sense of humor about that.”
‘I think about that little pin. I think that will be just as shiny as the day I threw it – no atmosphere up there – and it will be for billions of years until some American tourist goes up there and picks it up.’ – Alan Bean
Toward the end of his NASA career, Bean trained to pilot the space shuttle but gave it up when he decided the younger astronauts around him deserved the seat. “I said, ‘You know, I care about art. Maybe if I can learn to paint well enough, I can tell some stories that would get lost in history forever if I didn’t tell them.’ This was a huge decision for me.”
He discovered that painting required as much training and dedication as his previous career. But, he said, “That was my thing. Now, it doesn’t replace the TV or the movies or the still photos we did. It’s just another way to celebrate one of the great human achievements in all of history.”
One of the first things Bean said he did on the moon was pull a silver star, given by NASA to new astronauts, from a side pocket and throw it. “When I look at the moon at night, that’s the thing I think about. I look at the part of the moon – left of center, about 30 degrees – and I think about that little pin. And I think that will be just as shiny as the day I threw it – no atmosphere up there – and it will be for billions of years until some American tourist goes up there and picks it up.”
And he believes that’s only a matter of time. “People are going to love to go to the moon on vacation,” he said. “Someday, breakthroughs will be made in propulsion, and other things, and we’ll go just like we go to Europe for a week’s vacation. Things like that will happen.”
The Rice Space Institute and Wiess School of Natural Sciences co-sponsor the Space Frontiers Lectures series. which is designed to introduce students and the general public to the wide array of issues involved in the pursuit of an advanced presence in space: international policy, technology innovation, commercialization, biological impacts and space science.