American astronaut Alan Bean (born in 1932) was the fourth person to ever walk on the moon. In November 1969, he and Pete Conrad made the second moon landing in history in their Apollo 12 Lunar Module Intrepid, while their crewmate Dick Gordon orbited the moon in Apollo 12's Command Module Yankee Clipper.
Alan Bean was born in Wheeler, Texas on March 15, 1932. He grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, where he became enamored of flight at an early age. "When I was a boy, growing up during WW II," he said on the National Space Society's Web site, "I saw pictures of people flying aircraft, and I grew up near an airbase, so I wanted to be an aviator."
Bean began flight training when he was just 17 years old and still in high school, when he joined the Naval Air Rescue. He graduated from Paschal High School in Fort Worth, and went on to the University of Texas, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering in 1955. A Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) student, he was commissioned as an ensign in the United States Navy on graduation.
After completing flight training in 1956, Bean was assigned to the Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida. At the age of 24, he became the youngest member of attack squadron VA-44. But painting, a career he was to follow after he retired from the Navy, was in his blood too. Even as other pilots tinkered with their hot rods on weekends, Bean took classes in oil painting. Known as "Sarsaparilla" by his fellow fliers because he didn't drink alcohol, he also became known as "Beano," a nickname that would stick with him through his astronaut days.
After completing a four-year tour of duty, Bean attended the Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland. He trained under the direction of Pete Conrad, who would later become commander of the Apollo 12 moon flight, and who would be instrumental in getting Bean assigned to that mission. After Pax River, Bean went on to another attack squadron in Cecil Field, Florida.
By 1962, Bean knew he wanted to join the elite cadre of America's newest test pilots known as astronauts because, as he later said on the National Space Society's Web site, "I thought it might be even more fun than flying airplanes." In that year he applied and made the final cut of 35 candidates, along with his old instructor, Pete Conrad. Bean was rejected, even as Conrad made it in. Undaunted, Bean applied again the following year and was accepted.
However, Bean was not good at playing the office politics that dominated the astronaut group at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He got sidelined away from the Gemini flights that were in progress and away from the later Apollo missions to the moon. Instead, Bean was assigned to the Apollo Applications program, which was concerned with low earth orbit flights planned for after the moon landings. There he would have languished if it weren't for the intervention of Conrad, who successfully lobbied NASA officials to have Bean assigned to his Apollo 12 crew. And so it was that Pete Conrad, mission commander, Dick Gordon, Command Module pilot, and Alan Bean, Lunar Module pilot, got in line for the second mission ever to land people on the surface of the moon.
Since the actual landing site of Apollo 11, the first moon mission, turned out to be as much as four miles off target, one of Apollo 12's prime objectives became to perfect a pinpoint landing. Planners chose as the target the landing site of Surveyor 3, an unmanned probe that had touched down in the Ocean of Storms, a large plain, in April 1967. If the Apollo 12 crew could walk to Surveyor 3 after they landed, they would know their mission was a success.
Apollo 12 was launched on November 14, 1969. A perfect liftoff was marred just 36 seconds into the flight, when the moon rocket was hit by lightning, overloading the ship's electrical system and scrambling its navigation platform. As Bean later said on National Public Radio, "when all these warning-lights came on…, it was unlike anything we'd been trained for years, maybe five years beforehand … we had no idea whatsoever what had happened." With the help of Mission Control, however, the crew recovered the mission, reached Earth orbit, and continued on to the moon. After a three-day journey, Apollo 12 did indeed achieve its main objective, setting down within sight of Surveyor 12.
Bean became the fourth person in history to set foot on the moon after he followed Pete Conrad from their lander. One of Bean's first acts upon stepping onto the moon was to toss his astronaut pin, worn by rookie astronauts, into a crater. "When you become an astronaut, after about a year of training, you get a silver one," Bean later said on an ABC Good Morning America television broadcast, referring to the astronaut pins he and his fellow astronauts wore. "When I went to the moon, I took my silver one with me and I threw it in the crater near Surveyor. I often think of it at night when I look up at the moon."
Bean and Conrad spent a total of 31.5 hours on the surface of the moon, including two moonwalks. This was a full ten hours longer than the crew of Apollo 11. They would spend more than seven hours outside of their spacecraft, far longer than two hours that Armstrong and Aldrin spent on the first moon mission. On their second moonwalk, Conrad and Bean took pictures of Surveyor and cut off pieces of the probe for analysis on earth.
The two astronauts had a little illicit mission of their own. Unbeknownst to NASA officials, they had brought along a store-bought timer for one of their cameras. Their plan was to secretly attach the timer to the camera, and get some pictures of the two of them together in front of Surveyor 3. Since only two crew members from their mission had landed on the moon, the big question when they returned to earth would have been "Who took that picture?" The two were certain their startling photos would land them on the cover of Life magazine. Unfortunately, they lost the timer among the rocks in their sample bags and they could not find it again until after the mission was completed.
After the Apollo mission was over, Bean became the second commander of Skylab, the first American space station. This station was built of Apollo hardware left over from moon missions that had been cancelled. Bean lived nearly two months (59 days) in 1973 in low Earth orbit with crewmates Owen Garriott and Jack Lousma.
After serving as backup commander for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which saw the first docking of American and Russian spacecraft in 1975, Bean retired from the Navy in 1975. He remained with NASA as the head of Astronaut Candidate Operations and Training until the first flight of the space shuttle in 1981. He wanted to devote full time to painting and public speaking. "I loved being an astronaut," Bean told The Washington Times. "I would have loved flying the space shuttle, but there were people there who could do it as well as I could or better. Yet no one was interested in doing this other job, which was recording it artistically."
In his home in Houston, Texas, Bean paints about four pieces a year. His paintings almost exclusively feature the Apollo flights, with such titles as "Armstrong, Aldrin, and an American Eagle," "A Giant Leap," "Houston, We Have a Problem," "Sunrise Over Antares," and "Tiptoeing on the Ocean of Storms." Each sells for $18,000-70,000. Bean also commands $10,000-15,000 per appearance as a public speaker.
To lend his paintings an authentic ruggedness, Bean paints on plywood normally used to make aircraft frames, "and then I make it rugged with a hammer I used on the moon," as he told an interviewer on ABC's Good Morning America.
In 1998, Bean published a book of his paintings called Apollo: An Eyewitness Account By Artist/Astronaut/Moon-walker. As he told The Washington Times, "For the last ten years, I've painted on commission so when a painting is finished it goes into somebody's house never to be seen again, really, by groups. So I knew I needed to have a book."
John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, wrote the introduction to Bean's book, saying, as quoted by The Washington Times, "He saw the same monochromatic world as the other astronauts, yet with an artist's eye he also saw intrinsic beauty in the rocks and boulders and their textures and shapes."
Bean lives with his wife Leslie and seven Lhasa Apso dogs in his native Texas. Of the moon flights and his paintings, he told Reuters, "It seems farther away now because there are no rockets going there. Nobody is going. Maybe all this will inspire some kid to go try to be a pilot or an astronaut." Asked if he felt disappointed by the current lack of human activity on the moon, Bean told the Web publication Astrodigital, "Look how long it was between when Columbus discovered here and the Pilgrims came. 1492 to 1640's—a couple hundred years. … I don't feel the least discouraged. … Eventually, as the centuries unfold … there will be more human beings living off the Earth than live on it. It's just going to happen and we don't need to be anxious about it."
Chaikin, Andrew, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, Penguin Books, 1994.
Reuters, October 1, 1998.
Washington Times, October 18, 1998.
"Alan Bean," Web site of the Astronaut Hall of Fame, http://www.astronauts.org/astronauts/bean.htm (October 31, 2001).
"Alan Bean," Web site of Strategic Events International, http://www.lordly.com/talent/sei/BeanAlan.html (October 31, 2001).
"Ask an Astronaut: Alan Bean," Web site of the National Space Society, http://www.ari.net/nss/askastro/Bean/answers2.html (October 31, 2001). (October 31, 2001).
"Astronaut Bio: Alan Bean," Web site of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/beanal.html, August 1993.
Chaikin, Andrew, "Thirty Years Ago: Lunar Explorers Take a Walk," Space.com, http://www.space.com/news/apollo-12-surveyor-112099, November 20, 1999.
Plaxco, Jim, "An Interview with Alan Bean," Astrodigital, http://www.astrodigital.org/space/intbean.html (October 31, 2001). □