Space Sunday: the Moonwalker and the artist

Astronaut and painter, Alan Bean in his Studio in Texas. Credit: unknown

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.

Alan Bean in 1969 in a NASA publicity photograph ahead of the Apollo 12 mission. Credit: NASA

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.”

The Apollo 12 crew (l to r): Charles “Pete” Conrad, Commander; Richard F. Gordon Jr , Command Module pilot; and Alan Bean, Lunar Excursion Module pilot. Credit: NASA

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.

“The Fabulous Photo We Never Took” by Alan Bean. Courtesy of alanbean.com

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.

Left: Apollo 12 is struck by lightning, the discharge passing down the vehicle into its exhaust plume. Right: the launch complex tower is also struck by lightning after the departure of the Saturn V rocket. Credit; NASA

The flight was saved by Electrical, Environmental and Consumables Manager (EECOM) John Aaron recalling a telemetry test failure that was corrected by switching to a back-up system. He called for the Apollo 12 crew to make the same switch, although Flight Director Gerald Griffin, CAPCOM Gerald Carr, and Conrad all failed to recognise the procedure he was calling for. A veteran of the Apollo test programme, Bean did recall the procedure, and made Aaron’s recommended switch. This restored power from the off-line fuel cells, which in turn corrected the instrument failures, saving the mission from being aborted.

The lunar landing required a precision touch-down if the two astronauts in the lunar module Intrepid were to be able to visit the Surveyor 3 vehicle, located in an area of the Ocean of Storms (Oceanus Procellarum) that the International Astronomical Union had christened the Mare Cognitum (“known sea”) on account of it being the landing site the Soviet Union’s Luna 5 mission as well as NASA’s Ranger 7 and Surveyor 3. Conrad had dubbed the targeted landing zone “Pete’s Parking Lot”, however, he was forced to set the lunar module down some 177 metres (580 ft) away, when he and Bean realised the intended landing site was lot rougher than orbital images had suggested.

An image by Alan Bean showing Charles Conrad standing alongside Surveyor 3 with the Lunar Excursion Module Intrepid on the horizon. Credit: A. Bean / NASA

Even so, touch-down was achieved on November 19th, 1969 just 360 metres (1,180 ft) away from Surveyor 3, in an area now referred to as Statio Cognitum (“anchorage known”) on lunar maps.  The first EVA for the crew was to set-up equipment, including a colour TV camera (Apollo 11 had only carried black-and-white television cameras). Unfortunately, in doing to, Bean pointed the camera towards the Sun, destroying its ability to record images. Nor was this his only mishap with cameras: he managed to accidentally expose a number of film rolls to sunlight.

Apollo 12 spent 31.6 hours on the lunar surface, with Bean and Conrad spending around 7.5 hours engaged in EVA. During this time, they visited Surveyor 3, set-up equipment to take measurements of the Moon’s seismicity, solar wind flux and magnetic field. These instruments formed part of the first complete nuclear-powered Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package to relay long-term data from the lunar surface. In the meantime, Gordon observed the Moon from orbit, 110 km (69 mi) overhead.

Intrepid’s ascent stage lifted-off from the Moon November 20th, 1969. After rejoining Gordon aboard the Command and Service Module  Yankee Clipper, the crew jettisoned the lunar module and started their return to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on November 24th, 1969.

“The Fantasy: Conrad, Gordon, Bean”: celebrating Apollo 12 in 1992 by Alan Bean. Courtesy of alanbean.com

Bean’s NASA career continued to be intertwined with Conrad’s post-Apollo.  Conrad was selected to fly the Skylab 2 mission – the first crewed mission to NASA’s Apollo / Saturn V derived orbital facility which had been launched on May 14th, 1973 -, while Bean was selected to command the second crewed mission, Skylab 3.

For his mission, Bean was flying with rookies Owen K. Garriott and Jack R. Lousma. They lifted-off from Kennedy Space Centre atop a Saturn 1B rocket on July 28th, 1973, on a mission lasting 59 days, 11 hours and 9 minutes, during which they spent 1,084.7 hours performing scientific experiments in the areas of medical activities, solar observations, Earth resources, and other work. Part of this included Bean testing a prototype Manned Manoeuvring Unit (MMU), the gas-powered backpack which (briefly) saw service with the space shuttle system. Skylab 3 also allowed Bean to complete his only EVA “space walk” in Earth orbit on August 6th, 1973.

The Skylab 3 mission was long enough for the astronauts to experience a new activity in orbit: receiving a haircut. This involved hair trimming scissors, combs and … a vacuum cleaner. This was used to catch the trimmed hair to prevent it floating free in the microgravity environment and becoming a potential problem.

Skylab 3: Alan Bean test-flies a prototype MMU inside the cavernous Skylab (l) and receives a haircut from fellow astronaut Owen Garriott (r). Note the vacuum hose used to collect loose hair

As well as being an astronaut, Alan Bean enjoyed painting. Following his retirement from NASA in 1981, he took to painting professionally, splitting his time between that, continuing working in a civilian capacity with the Astronaut Candidate Operations and Training Group within NASA’s Astronaut Office, and in giving talks and presentations on his time as an astronaut and about his work as an artist.

I was fortunate to be the first artist with the opportunity to be in the centre of the action to capture what I saw and felt, and bring it back to earth to share with generations to come. “It is my dream that on the wings of my paintbrush many people will see what I saw and feel what I felt, walking on another world some 240,000 miles from my studio here on planet earth.”

– Alan Bean

“Straightening Our Stars and Stripes”: a commemoration of Neil Armstrong on the Moon by Alan Bean, painted in 1985. Courtesy of alanbean.com

A unique aspect of some of his lunar paintings is that they actually contain mementoes of his time on the Moon. Dust that gathered on his space suit mission patches  – which he kept after the mission – can be found in some, while in others, texturing in the paint has been created using tools identical to those he and Conrad used on the Moon. “With careful observation you can see the imprints of Moon boots walking across the painting,” he said of one of his pieces. “These Moon prints are just like the ones we Apollo astronauts made as we went about our explorations.”

More recently, he time touring and giving presentations and talks declined – not so much because of his increasing age, but because, as he once observed, “I feel that there’s too many painting left unpainted that I just don’t want to take the time away.”

“Helping Hnds” (1985). “This painting is a favourite remembrance of Pete and me working together … I have painted Pete holding the tool [Bean had used to gain a sub-surface soil sample] … while I unscrew the sharp-edged bit and replace it with a cap. I then removed the core tube from the tool extension and put it in the sample bag on my left hip.” – Alan Bean.
In total, Bean logged 1,671 hours and 45 minutes in space (69 days, 15 hours and 45 minutes), including 31 hours and 31 minutes on the moon’s surface and 10 hours and 26 minutes spent in EVAs on the Moon and in Earth orbit. As a professional pilot, he accumulated more than 5,500 hours of flying time in 27 different types of aircraft.

He is survived by his second wife Leslie, with whom he was married for forty years, his children, Amy Sue and Clay, from his first marriage and his sister, Paula Stott.

Alan Bean was the most extraordinary person I ever met. He was a one of a kind combination of technical achievement as an astronaut and artistic achievement as a painter.”

– Former shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino on hearing of Bean’s passing.

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