Aviator, Apollo Astronaut, Artist: Alan Bean passes away at 86
Alan Bean, a U.S. Navy test pilot who would go on to become an Apollo and Skylab astronaut and one of just 12 men to walk on the Moon, has died at the Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. His death marks the passing of the last crew member who comprised humanity’s second crewed trip to the Moon – Apollo 12.
Bean fell ill, while traveling in Fort Wayne Indiana two weeks prior to his passing earlier today, Saturday May 26. His life, however, comprised more than just that as a pilot or astronaut.
Bean was also known as an artist, who painted an array of textured, beautiful portraits – that actually contained elements from his experiences flying into the black for NASA. According to his website: Over the years, my art has evolved into a mixture of painting and sculpture, textured with my lunar tools, sprinkled with bits of our Apollo 12 spacecraft and a touch of Moondust from the Ocean of Storms.
For his Apollo-themed paintings, Bean added an extra touch which included impressions from replicas of his lunar boot prints. Bean, who always added a personal touch to his work, also included bits of of his Apollo 12 mission patches, which were still stained with dust from the lunar surface.
Bean’s artistic talents served as an inspiration for fellow space flyers who looked upon him as a mentor – and a friend.
“I am heartbroken by this world’s loss of Alan Bean. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received is when he called me a kindred spirit. This was a bit overwhelming since he is one of my heroes – one of my superheroes actually of spaceflight and art,” Nicole Stott, a shuttle astronaut who flew on STS-128, STS-129 and STS-133 told SpaceFlight Insider. “I first met him shortly after I retired from NASA to pursue my next adventure as an artist. He welcomed me to his studio, he shared his own story of transition from astronaut to artist, he walked me through his whole creative process for his beautiful paintings, and he encouraged me to pursue the art I love. I am so thankful for a mentor and friend like Alan Bean. I will always cherish his thoughtfulness and his wonderful smile, and we are all blessed by the legacy of his amazing artwork. Holding his family close in prayers of sympathy and peace.”
His art made Bean unique among his Apollo colleagues. However, he hailed from the same stock as most of those who would walk on our nearest celestial neighbor’s surface in that he was a test pilot. He was selected to be a member of NASA’s elite cadre of space flyers in October of 1963.
Bean’s first trip into space was, to say the least, historic. It was also dramatic. The mission took to the skies on November 14, 1969. Thirty-six seconds into the flight, the Saturn V SA-507 launch vehicle was struck by lightning – which traveled down the rocket’s plume, striking the ground at Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) Launch Complex 39A. It was Bean who executed John Aaron’s “Flight, try SCE to ‘Aux'” instruction (which was documented on the HBO series From the Earth to the Moon) – that restored telemetry and allowed the mission to continue.
He was joined on Apollo 12 by Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr., Apollo 12’s commander and Richard F. Gordon Jr., the command module pilot. Despite the initial liftoff shock – Apollo 12 was on its way to the Moon’s Ocean of Storms. Bean served as the mission’s lunar module pilot. Apollo 12 was flown in November of 1969 – just four months after the crew of Apollo 11 carried out the first lunar landing. Bean was 37 at the time.
Upon touching down on the lunar regolith Bean becane the fourth person to walk on the surface of the Moon. He and Conrad conducted two extravehicular activities (EVAs) during their time on the Moon. On top of deploying several scientific experiments – the duo also paid a visit to a fellow lunar explorer – the Surveyor lander.
Bean and Conrad collected about 75 pounds (34 kilograms) of lunar material which they brought back to Earth for analysis.
“We are accustomed to losing friends in our business but this is a tough one,” said Walt Cunningham, who was a member of the crew who carried out the first crewed flight of the Apollo Program – Apollo 7.
Many would consider a trip to the surface of the Moon the climax of their career, Bean however had more to offer and listened to his former commander’s (Conrad) advice and rode the Saturn IB SA-207 rocket from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex-39B on July 28, 1973 as the commander of the Skylab 3 crew.
“Alan and I have been best friends for 55 years — ever since the day we became astronauts,” said Cunningham. “When I became head of the Skylab Branch of the Astronaut Office, we worked together and Alan eventually commanded the second Skylab mission.”
Bean was joined on this mission by Owen K. Garriott and Jack R. Lousma. It is estimated that the Skylab 3 crew traveled some 24.4 million-miles with the mission lasting 59 days.
The Skylab 3 crew produced a staggering 18 miles of computer tape and conducted surveys of Earth’s resources. They also took some 76,000 photographs of the Sun to help scientists gain a clearer understanding of its impact on the solar system.
Between his two missions Bean logged an estimated 69 days, 15 hours and 45 minutes in space, including 31 hours and 31 minutes on the surface of the Moon.
“Alan and Pete were extremely engaged in the planning for their exploration of the Surveyor III landing site in the Ocean of Storms and, particularly, in the enhanced field training activity that came with the success of Apollo 11. This commitment paid off with Alan’s and Pete’s collection of a fantastic suite of lunar samples, a scientific gift that keeps on giving today and in the future,” said Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17’s lunar module pilot stated via a release. “Their description of bright green concentrations of olivine (peridot) as ‘ginger ale bottle glass,’ however, gave geologists in Mission Control all a big laugh, as we knew exactly what they had discovered.”
Although his professional accomplishments made Bean someone who was respected and admired – he was equally revered by his family and friends.
“Alan was the strongest and kindest man I ever knew. He was the love of my life and I miss him dearly,” said Leslie Bean, Alan Bean’s wife of 40 years. “A native Texan, Alan died peacefully in Houston surrounded by those who loved him.”
Bean was born in Wheeler, Texas on March 15, 1932. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Texas in 1955. He went on to attend the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School and would accumulate some 5,500 hours flight time in 27 different types of aircraft. He retired from the Navy in 1975 and NASA six years later in 1981.
“Alan Bean once said ‘I have the nicest life in the world.’ It’s a comforting sentiment to recall as we mourn his passing,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine via a release issued by the agency.
He is survived by his wife Leslie, his sister Paula Stott, and two children from a prior marriage, a daughter Amy Sue and son Clay.
“When Alan’s third career as the artist of Apollo moved forward, he would call me to ask about some detail about lunar soil, color or equipment he wanted to have represented exactly in a painting. Other times, he wanted to discuss items in the description he was writing to go with a painting. His enthusiasm about space and art never waned. Alan Bean is one of the great renaissance men of his generation — engineer, fighter pilot, astronaut and artist,” said Schmitt.
Video courtesy of NASA
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.