Alan Bean, the fourth man to set foot on the lunar surface—and the second Moonwalker to pass in 2018—has died, aged 86, after suddenly falling ill while on travel in Fort Wayne, Indiana two weeks ago. With his passing, the world has now lost eight of the 12 sons who left their bootprints in the lunar dust, with only Buzz Aldrin, Dave Scott, Charlie Duke and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt still with us. During his career, Bean became the first astronaut from his class to draw a command assignment and, after his Moon landing, went on to command America’s Skylab space station, stood in reserve for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) and acted as deputy chief of the astronaut office, before retiring to devote his life to painting. “Life is a dance,” he once said. “You learn as you go.”
“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.”
Alan LaVern Bean was born in Wheeler, Texas, on 15 March 1932, with a father who worked for the Soil Conservation Service and a mother who ran her own ice cream shop. Athletically talented from a young age, Bean earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1955 and entered the U.S. Navy through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). He underwent initial flight instruction and was assigned to a jet attack squadron, based at Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville, Fla. He did not fit the mold of the fighter pilot: at Jacksonville, Bean was nicknamed “Sarsaparilla”, because he never touched a drop, or simply “Beano”. As a test pilot at Patuxent River, Md., he met an instructor who would change his life: a young Navy lieutenant called Charles “Pete” Conrad.
In October 1963, Bean successfully applied to join NASA’s third class of astronauts and after early training he was assigned to work on spacecraft recovery systems, before drawing his first assignment as backup command pilot for Gemini X in July 1966. In doing so, Bean became the first member of his class to draw a command position, even though it was in a backup capacity. His crewmate was a Marine Corps aviator named Clifton “C.C.” Williams, who wound up being assigned to join Conrad and another astronaut, Dick Gordon, on the mission which eventually turned out to be Apollo 12. Meanwhile, Bean came off his Gemini X backup duty to work on Apollo Applications, but the situation changed dramatically. In the fall of 1967, tragically, Williams was killed in an aircraft crash and Conrad was faced with an empty spot on his crew. He picked Bean.
As a crew, they bonded exceptionally well. They purchased matching gold Corvettes, the license plates of which were emblazoned with their Apollo 12 crew positions: Bean was “LMP”, or “Lunar Module Pilot”. The three men launched from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, into thundery skies on 14 November 1969, just four months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had performed humanity’s triumphant landing on the Moon. Apollo 12 was targeted to perform the first precision touchdown on the lunar surface, alighting on the Ocean of Storms, not far from NASA’s Surveyor 3 robotic lander. However, the launch did not go well. The Saturn V rocket was twice struck by lightning, temporarily shutting down systems aboard the spacecraft and bringing Apollo 12 dangerously close to an aborted mission.
Fortunately, Electrical, Environmental and Communications Officer (EECOM) John Aaron knew that repositioning the Signal Conditioning Equipment (SCE) switch to its auxiliary position would allow raw signals from the instrumentation to be converted into usable data for the spacecraft’s displays. In one of the most famous radio calls from Apollo 12, Aaron advised that the crew should “try SCE to Auxiliary” and it was Bean who calmly moved the switch to its new position. Immediately, data reappeared on consoles in Mission Control and the crew was able to gradually bring their fuel cells and other systems back online. Humanity’s second landing mission to the Moon was on.
“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 lunar module pilot and the only geologist to walk on the moon. “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.”
Four days later, Bean hopped down the ladder of the lunar module Intrepid, to become the fourth man to set foot on an alien world. Over the next two days, he and Conrad set up experiments on the surface and landed just 525 feet (160 meters) from Surveyor 3, so close that they were able to walk over to it and retrieve samples for return to Earth. Unfortunately, Bean accidentally pointed the color television camera directly at the Sun, burning out the light-sensitive coating on its vidicon tube. He tried shaking the camera, then tapped it with his hammer, but to no avail. The first attempt to see color images of astronauts on the lunar surface had been lost.
Nevertheless, the two men pressed on with the two Moonwalks, each of which lasted four hours. Their backup crew, Dave Scott and Jim Irwin, had helpfully pasted Playboy bunnies into their cuff checklists, which caused laughter every now and then, affording some levity as they set up the U.S. flag, a package of surface experiments and set to work performing the first detailed geological inspection of their surroundings. They managed to sneak a timer aboard Apollo 12, intending to take a photograph of them both, but unfortunately it got lost in their tool carrier and gradually covered in lunar grime. With no time to dig through the dirt to find it, they gave it up as lost.
Ironically, back at Intrepid at the end of their second Moonwalk, they found the timer…and hurled it as far as they could into the distance.
Lunar grime was on Dick Gordon’s mind when Conrad and Bean rejoined him in orbit a day later. The two Moonwalkers were filthy and, fearful of the impact of the abrasive dust on the spacecraft systems, he insisted that they strip naked before coming aboard. If something bad happened at that moment, they mused, and someone found them centuries later, what would they think?
“That’s I’m a sick and lonely man,” deadpanned Gordon.
“Alan and I have been best friends for 55 years — ever since the day we became astronauts,” said Walt Cunningham, who flew on Apollo 7. “When I became head of the Skylab Branch of the Astronaut Office, we worked together and Alan eventually commanded the second Skylab mission. We have never lived more than a couple of miles apart, even after we left NASA. And for years, Alan and I never missed a month where we did not have a cheeseburger together at Miller’s Café in Houston. We are accustomed to losing friends in our business but this is a tough one,” said Cunningham.
After Apollo 12, Bean transferred back to Apollo Applications, which by now had been renamed “Skylab” and sought to place America’s first space station into low-Earth orbit. On 28 July 1973, he commanded a crew of scientist Dr. Owen Garriott and pilot Jack Lousma on a record-breaking 59-day mission to Skylab. Theirs was to be a voyage of around 60 scientific experiments—featuring almost 800 living creatures, including, famously, a pair of common cross spiders, named Anita and Arabella—and Garriott would later pay tribute to Bean’s tenacity, attention to detail and unflinching focus on the completion of their mission. And that mission did not begin well. Only hours after launch, the crew was alerted to a propellant leak in one of their command module’s four thruster quads.
But the situation worsened dramatically in the next few days, as the astronauts fell victim to space sickness. Just as they were beginning to feel better, a problem with another set of the command module’s quad thrusters was detected. With two of the four quads out of action, part of their spacecraft’s essential maneuvering capability was seriously depleted. NASA, aware that another failure would place Bean, Garriott and Lousma in severe distress, opted to call up a two-man Skylab rescue crew and have their vehicle ready to launch, if needed. As circumstances transpired, the Skylab Rescue flight did not come to pass and the 59-day mission proceeded. Three spacewalks were performed, one by Bean himself. By the end of his second mission, he had logged over ten hours outside a spacecraft, either on the lunar surface or in low-Earth orbit. At the instant of splashdown on 25 September 1973, with 69 days in space across his two missions, Bean secured a new record as the most experienced space traveler in history.
Following Skylab, Bean trained as the backup commander for the U.S. side of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) in July 1975 and went on to serve as deputy chief of the astronaut office, until shortly before his retirement from NASA in February 1981. From an early age, he had been fascinated by painting and had taken night classes in oils whilst at NAS Jacksonville. After NASA, Bean famously devoted himself to conveying the story of his lunar adventures on canvas, adding unique finishing touches to his paintings: a smear of real Moon dust, perhaps, or a print made by a real lunar shoe. In his own words, he described himself as “an artist, creating paintings that record for future generations mankind’s first exploration of another world.”
“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.
“Alan Bean was the most extraordinary person I ever met,” said astronaut Mike Massimino, who flew on two space shuttle missions to service the Hubble Space Telescope. “He was a one of a kind combination of technical achievement as an astronaut and artistic achievement as a painter. But what was truly extraordinary was his deep caring for others and his willingness to inspire and teach by sharing his personal journey so openly. Anyone who had the opportunity to know Alan was a better person for it, and we were better astronauts by following his example. I am so grateful he was my mentor and friend, and I will miss him terribly. He was a great man and this is a great loss,” Massimino said.
The following is a statement from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on the passing of Apollo and Skylab astronaut Alan Bean:
“Alan Bean once said ‘I have the nicest life in the world.’ It’s a comforting sentiment to recall as we mourn his passing.
“As all great explorers are, Alan was a boundary pusher. Rather than accepting the limits of technology, science, and even imagination, he sought to advance those lines — in all his life’s endeavors. Alan passed the baton to the next generation of astronauts and changed fronts, looking to push the boundaries of his own imagination and ability as an artist. Even in this endeavor, his passion for space exploration dominated, as depicted most powerfully is his work ‘Hello Universe.’ We will remember him fondly as the great explorer who reached out to embrace the universe.”