Exploring The Life Of Artist-Astronaut, Alan Bean

BY Taylor Rebhan


Astronaut Alan Bean prepared to step into uncharted territory. He would be the first of his kind to venture into this colorful new world. Drawing a deep breath of 20 percent oxygen, the astronaut pressed his boots into the strange white surface beneath him. “They don’t train you for this at NASA,” he thought aloud as he moved cautiously, careful that his boots didn’t slip when … ding, the oven timer went off. Nachos were done. With two small white Lhasa Apsos named E.T. and Moonbeam darting between her feet, Alan’s wife, Leslie, navigated her way to Alan’s painting studio with his afternoon snack while he considered his next move. It was a scene that could have taken place in 1981 when the two church-met newlyweds lived in their tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Houston where Alan first thought of going somewhere no astronaut had gone before: behind an easel. A mission that would not have been attempted, let alone successfully achieved without the guidance and support of his best friend and co-pilot of more than 40 years, Leslie. In that tiny apartment, on a tiny couch beside a tiny easel, it was Leslie who encouraged him to paint what he knew better than any on Earth—the Moon.

Today Bean’s home is substantially larger as evidenced by the living and dining rooms that had been transformed into a painting studio, office, and de facto NASA museum. I watched as Alan Bean pulled a brass cast of a moon boot from the thick white modeling paste that he’d plastered across a section of aircraft-grade plywood. Once hardened, the paste would be the foundation for Bean’s next work of art. These boot prints will remain on this surface just as they will remain on the Moon, where he strolled in 1969, relatively undisturbed for 30 million years until micro-meteors slowly grind them away.

Alan Bean was the most unusual hyphenate: the artist-astronaut. His impressionistic paintings of his visit to the Moon literally began with impressions of things he took there, including an aluminum hammer and core-sampling bit tube. The denim apron he painted in, replete with an Apollo 12 mission patch sewn over his heart, was well worn and smeared with four decades of color—a testament to the tens of thousands of hours he spent behind the easel, endlessly mixing and pawing peach and plum acrylics across more than 200 works of art. Bean’s studio is filled with scale models of rockets, moon buggies, and spacemen that he would meticulously pose, stage, light (down to the actual angle of the sun at the time being depicted), photograph, and finally sketch as references for his paintings. The process was about as scientific as painting can get, and Bean did it with such precision that you’d think the guy worked for NASA.

It’s not every day you get to hang out with an artist who walked on the Moon. There has been only one. Ever. Talk about a lonely clubhouse.

At the time of my visit I found the spry 84-year-old former Lunar Module pilot with plenty of fuel left in his boosters. He’d been painting before I arrived and he was back at it that afternoon when I left. But time has a way of speeding up as our bodies slow down. The same mechanics that govern black holes apply to our time on Earth; the closer we get to the end, the faster time goes. A place in time and space where only paintings of memories exist.

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Painting by Alan Bean (2006): Is Anybody Out There?


November 14, 1969 | Cape Canaveral, Florida

President Nixon watched through driving rain as Apollo 12’s Saturn V, the largest rocket ever built, rumbled into the sky. On board, Pete Conrad, the gap-toothed, wisecracking commander of the mission said, “That’s a lovely liftoff. That wasn’t bad at all.” But just 36 seconds into liftoff the rocket was struck by lightning. A hundred million volts passed over the rocket as the lightning bolt rode the ionized exhaust trail down to the launch tower, where it exploded on the pad below.

“What the hell was that?” Conrad exclaimed as his rocket gained speed over the Atlantic. Seconds later Apollo 12 was struck again by lightning, proving the old adage wrong. The three-stage Saturn V Moon Rocket was a 360-foot canister filled with highly flammable liquid rocket fuel. Basically the thing was a 40-story bomb. Two other snoopy-hooded, bubble-helmeted spacemen were belted on their backs beside Conrad as they rode the monster as it ripped through the bruised Florida sky: his good friends Richard Gordon and Alan Bean. The three astronauts were such close friends that they drove matching black-and-gold Corvettes with their mission positions painted on the quarter panels. It was 1969 in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and there wasn’t a boy on Earth who didn’t want to be them.

The lightning strikes tripped the caution and warning system surrounding the astronauts. The panels lit up like a Griswold Christmas tree. Everything dropped off-line as alarms wailed and systems failed by the second. Florida was fading from view as a confused Pete Conrad radioed to Mission Control, “I dunno what happened here. We had everything in the world drop out!” Mission Control could only respond with a single lonely word, “Roger.”

Pete Conrad’s gloved left hand, already on the “abort” handle, began to tense. Twisting it counterclockwise would separate their command module from the Saturn V booster rocket, fire the abort system rockets, deploy parachutes, and float the astronauts in their capsule safely down to the Atlantic. That was the plan anyway, but Mission Control had no way of knowing whether the lightning strikes had damaged the abort system. NASA had simulated everything it could think of prior to this mission, but it hadn’t considered lightning strikes. Apollo 12 burst through the clouds. Earth’s blue sky faded to black as Mission Control raced through their options. The clock ticked. At 60 seconds the astronauts approached the speed of sound. For another agonizing 20 seconds, an eternity under the circumstances, Mission Control remained eerily silent.

Alan Bean was no stranger to lightning. Years earlier, while serving as a test pilot in the Navy, one of Captain Bean’s jobs was to fly into thunderstorms, intentionally mind you, to study the effect of lightning strikes on an aircraft. During these flights, Bean would sink as low as he could in the cockpit. It wasn’t unheard of for lightning to strike a pilot’s helmet through the canopy, causing the foam insulation to instantly swell from the heat, squeezing the pilot’s head until … you get the picture.

Still, Bean had never been hit while rocketing toward space. No one had. Nervous moments passed. Down at Mission Control John Aaron, a 24-year-old flight controller from Oklahoma, interrupted the silence with an unusual instruction: “Try SCE to AUX.” Nobody recognized his call. “FCE to auxiliary? What the hell is that?!” Conrad shot back, scanning the hundreds of switches that surrounded the astronauts. “SCE, SCE to auxiliary,” Mission Control corrected him. Just then another bolt struck—this time in Bean’s memory. He quickly located the SCE (Signal Conditioning Equipment) switch low on the instrument panel in front of him and threw it. “SCE to AUX,” Bean radioed. Suddenly all the missing data from their command module appeared on the screens down at Mission Control. Mission Control could now follow the telemetry sent from Apollo 12.

Bean may have saved the mission to the Moon but the Oscar for “keeping your cool” went to Pete Conrad, whose gloved hand gripped the abort handle during the entire event and never turned it. If you listen to the recording of this incredible moment in human history, you can hear the three friends laugh like kids let out for recess as they slip the surly bonds of Earth on their way to the Moon. The irony was perhaps not lost on them that their destination was a place on the lunar surface called the Ocean of Storms.

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Painting by Alan Bean (2012): Closest Relative


Bean’s voyage through the cosmos was extraordinary. Consider going from the dust bowl of Texas to the dust bowls of the lunar surface and then bringing that dust back to use in your art. Bean’s paintings include bits of fabric from the emblems that were on his spacesuit when he walked through the Ocean of Storms. These emblems (the American flag from his left shoulder, and Apollo 12 and NASA patches from his chest) contain traces of actual moon dust in them. It must be noted that lunar rock is the rarest and most valuable substance on Earth. As a kid, who would have imagined?

Growing up in Fort Worth, Bean was well versed in the adventures of the Wright Brothers and Charles Lindbergh, but it was Hollywood that brought the adventure of flight to life for him. His father and uncle both fought in World War II, but it was Clark Gable and John Wayne as flying aces swooping out of the sun with guns blazing that inspired Bean. These were his Luke Skywalkers and Han Solos. The difference was that these planes actually existed, and if you were able to join the military and survive flight training, you could actually fly an even better plane than John Wayne flew. We’re still waiting for the X-wing to come out.

More than anything it was a mother’s love that set Bean’s course. Without it there’s little chance an undersized kid from nowhere Texas would have had the downloads necessary to fly very far, let alone all the way to the Moon. Pretty much everything he needed to become successful in his adult life he unwittingly, if not begrudgingly, learned from her.

Bean was just an average high school kid whose mother owned an ice cream parlor and wanted him there considerably more than he wanted to be. While his friends were hot-rodding around Fort Worth, Bean was stuck behind a counter jerking soda. It was torture for a puckish 16-year-old with a fancy to fly. But those late summer nights of mopping up soda pop rickey instilled in Bean disciplines that would prove to be valuable on his way to a much greater place.

For Bean, spaceships were nothing more than fantasies in the funny papers. In reality Buck Rogers and rockets to the Moon didn’t exist. But airplanes did. And young Bean’s fascination with them was profound. He could identify every aircraft in the sky not only by its silhouette but by the sound of its engines. The heavens were Bean’s destiny but it took some of his earliest navigational skills to convince his parents to sign a document allowing him to join the Naval Air Reserve outside of Fort Worth. It was there he’d serve as a ground crewman when he wasn’t in school, immersing himself in everything from washing and fueling the aircraft to helping strap the squadron pilots into their cockpits. His favorite times were when one of the pilots would let him ride along in their TBM Avenger. The Avenger was a sluggish, bassbellied torpedo bomber that was quickly found to have no business being in combat. Hulking, over-armored, and painfully slow compared to other fighters, TBMs were easily picked off in combat. The TBM was the same aircraft that George Bush Sr. flew (and somehow survived) in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Bean would ride bubble-seat in the turret behind the pilot’s canopy as they flew in formation during practice bombing runs. It was as close as you could get to flying a plane without actually having your hand on the control stick. Bean was still in high school, but if there were any doubts about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life they were shot down during these flights. Bean was hooked.

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Painting by Alan Bean (2003): Hello, Universe


In 1955, perhaps the sweetest spot in American history, Alan Bean graduated from the University of Texas with an aeronautical engineering degree and promptly joined the United States Navy in Jacksonville, Florida. Unwittingly the gymnastic training he received in college would prove helpful during the competition that was astronaut training.

Nicknamed “Sarsaparilla” by his fellow Florida fliers because he didn’t drink booze, Bean became the youngest member of his attack squadron. Soon Bean would fly north to join the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Maryland where he trained under the direction of his eventual Apollo 12 Commander, Pete Conrad. JFK soon proclaimed the Moon a coveted piece of real estate and challenged the United States to plant the stars and stripes up there before the sickle and hammer had a chance. Russia’s Yuri Gagarin had already become the first man in space, and Kennedy would be damned if he was going to fall asleep beneath the light of a Red Moon. The space race was on and Alan Bean could think of only one thing that would be even more fun than flying airplanes—flying rockets.

Still, all through Bean’s 18 years at the agency he was moonlighting as an artist, taking evening painting classes to give yin to NASA’s yang. In between commanding Skylab 3 (a 59-day, 24,400,000-mile record-setting flight) and backing up the Apollo-Soyuz Project with the Russians in 1973, Bean was getting good at painting.

In 1981, rather than riding out his time behind a dusty desk consulting for an aerospace company, Alan Bean left his first love for another and took flight as an artist. His decision shocked his fellow flyers. “How could you throw away millions of dollars of training to…paint?” they’d ask. Despite the questions and behind-the-back snickering, Bean felt a responsibility to preserve his stories through paintings so future generations could experience mankind’s first adventures on the Moon. Bean’s paintings are not only about how he saw the Moon, but more importantly, like a true impressionist’s works, they illustrate his feelings about the Moon. This coming from the only artist who’s ever actually been on the Moon—or any other object in space for that matter.

One may think that artists and astronauts exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. One decidedly leftbrained—the other firmly right. However, they have something simple if not profound in common: the need to explore the unknown. Bean’s paintings go beyond realism in much the same way Claude Monet’s impressionist paintings did 100 years earlier. Bean’s depictions combine not only the facts but his feelings as well. His paintings are impressions of what Apollo 11 astronaut “Buzz” Aldrin famously described as “magnificent desolation.” A dusty, stark, ashen place made up of warm and cool grays strewn with rocks and craters. But Bean sees it differently—because he felt it differently. As an artist he’s able to communicate scenes and emotions with more empathy than any photograph ever could. As Monet did with Water Lilies and Van Gogh with The Starry Night, Bean’s paintings convey colorful interpretations of the places and moments he experienced. It’s no wonder that like the man himself, Alan Bean’s paintings have become American treasures.

Skylights bathed Alan Bean’s studio in a warm Texas glow as the artist sat back in his chair, looking grandfatherly and very much at home surrounded by his work, a frozen mug of Coke and a plate of nachos E.T. and Moonbeam could not take their eyes off of. As the artist waited for his lunar boot impressions to dry, I flipped though my Nikon, hoping I’d find some good black and white shots, when something struck me. Perhaps the only thing more colorful than one of Alan Bean’s magnificent paintings was the life that the artist had lived—a life lived, quite literally, out of this world.

Editor’s Note: Shortly after we spent time with him in his studio, our friend Alan Bean passed from this world for the last time. This limited-edition Shinola timepiece was created to honor his legend and the example he left behind for all of us on Earth.

GOD SPEED, ALAN BEAN. MARCH 15, 1932 – MAY 26, 2018

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Every detail of this limited-edition timepiece was designed under the watchful eye of Alan Bean, whose lesson remains the driving force behind the concept of Shinola. American greatness personified, this watch not only honors his legend, but the mission Alan left behind for his friends at Shinola: to create world class products and meaningful jobs in a country he dearly loved.


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