The pool of men who flew to the Moon, and those who walked on its surface, as a part of NASA’s Apollo programme is sadly shrinking. And on Saturday May 26th, 2018, it became even smaller with the news that Alan Bean, the fourth man to set foot on the Moon had passed away.
His passing was unexpected. Although 86 years of age, he was in good health and was travelling with his family when he suddenly fell ill while in Indiana two weeks ago. He was taken to the Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, to receive treatment, but passed away whilst at the hospital.
Born on March 15th, 1932 in Wheeler County, Texas, Alan LaVern Bean received a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Texas, Austin in 1955. While at the UT Austin, he accepted a commission as a U.S. Navy Ensign in the university’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps and attended flight training.
Qualifying as a pilot in 1956, he served four years based in Florida flying attack aircraft. He was then posted to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS) at Patuxent River, Maryland, where his instructor was the irrepressible Charles “Pete” Conrad. The two stuck up an enduring friendship which was to eventually take them to the Moon.
As a naval test pilot, Bean flew numerous aircraft prior to transferring back to fighter operations in 1962, again serving in Florida for a year. In 1963, he was accepted into NASA as a part of the Group 3 astronaut intake.
He had originally applied as a part of the Group 2 intake in 1962 alongside Conrad, but failed to make the cut. Coincidentally, Conrad’s Group 2 application – which was successful – was also his second attempt to join NASA. He’d actually been part of the Group 1 intake, but – always rebellious – he walked away for being subject to what he felt were demeaning and unnecessary medical and psychological tests.
Bean’s flight career at NASA was initially choppy: he was selected as a back-up astronaut with the Gemini programme but did not secure a flight seat. He then initially failed to gain an Apollo primary or back-up flight assignment. Instead he was assigned to the Apollo Applications Programme testing systems and facilities to be used in both lunar missions and training for flights to the Moon. In this capacity he was the first astronaut to use the original Weightless Environment Training Facility (WETF). This is a gigantic pool in which astronauts may perform tasks wearing suits designed to provide neutral buoyancy, simulating the microgravity they will experience during space flight. He became a champion for the use of the facility in astronaut training, which was used through until the 1980s, when is was superseded by the larger Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) used in space station training.
On October 5th, 1967, Apollo 9 back-up Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) pilot Clifton Williams was tragically killed in an air accident. As a result, “Pete” Conrad, the back-up crew commander specifically requested Bean be promoted to the position of his LEM pilot. This placed the two of them, together with Command Module (CM) pilot Richard F. Gordon Jr on course to fly as the prime crew for Apollo 12, the second mission intended to land on the Moon.
Bean and Conrad approached their lunar mission with huge enthusiasm and commitment. In contrast to some of their comrades, who at times found the intense geological training the Apollo astronauts went through a little tiresome, they became extremely engaged in the training – which resulted in them gathering what Harrison Schmitt – the only true geologist to walk on the Moon thus far – later called, “a fantastic suite of lunar samples, a scientific gift that keeps on giving today.”
In particular, Bean and Conrad became deeply involved in one of the primary aspects of their mission – a visit to the Surveyor 3 space craft.
The Surveyor programme was a series of seven robotic landers NASA sent to the Moon between June 1966 and January 1968, primarily to demonstrate the feasibility of soft landings on the Moon in advance of Apollo. Scientists were particularly keen that Conrad and Bean land close enough the probe so they could collect elements from it for analysis on Earth to see what exposure to the radiative environment around the Moon had treated them.
However, Bean had his own plans for the trip to the Surveyor vehicle: with Conrad, he conspired to smuggle self-timer for his Hasselblad camera in their equipment. The pair planned to secretly set-up the camera and use the timer to capture a photograph the pair of them standing side-by-side on the Moon – and confuse the mission control team as to how they had managed the feat! Unfortunately, Bean couldn’t locate the timer in their equipment tote bag until it was too late for the picture to be taken. Instead, he later immortalised the scene in his painting The Fabulous Photo We Never Took.
Apollo 12 launched on schedule from Kennedy Space Centre on November 14th, 1969, during a rainstorm. Thirty-six-and-a-half seconds after lift-off, the vehicle triggered a lightning discharge through itself and down to the Earth through the Saturn’s ionized plume. Protective circuits on the Service Module falsely detected electrical overloads and took all three fuel cells off-line, along with much of the Command/Service Module (CSM) instrumentation.
A second strike then occurred 15.5 seconds later, resulting in further power supply problems, illuminating nearly every warning light on the control panel as it caused a massive instrumentation malfunction. In particular, the “8-ball” attitude indicator was knocked out and the telemetry feed to Mission Control became garbled. However, the vehicle continued to fly correctly, the lightning not having disrupted the Saturn V’s own instrumentation unit.