Alan Bean, Apollo 12 Astronaut Who Walked On The Moon, Dies At 86

May 26, 2018
Originally published on May 27, 2018 8:10 am

Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon who later chronicled the experience as an artist, died Saturday in Houston after a short illness. He was 86.

Bean was the lunar module pilot of Apollo 12, which made the second moon landing, in 1969.

Bean spent 31 hours on the moon, collecting samples and deploying several experiments with mission commander Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr. They also checked up on Surveyor 3, which had landed two years earlier.

They were busy, but, as Bean recalled during a 2016 NPR interview, "as I ran along, I remember ... saying to myself, 'You know, this is really the moon. We're really here. ... That's the Earth up there.' And I said it two or three times to myself."

With Bean's death, only four moonwalkers are still alive — Buzz Aldrin, Dave Scott, Charlie Duke and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt.

After Apollo, Bean commanded the second Skylab mission in 1973 — orbiting the Earth for 59 days. Later, he was in line to fly the first shuttle flights. But he gave it up because "the more I thought about it, the more I realized there were young men and women at NASA in the astronaut office that could fly the shuttle as good as I could or better, but I was the only one interested in trying to do this other job."

That other job was to paint. So he left NASA. He had an engineering background and was a test pilot in the Navy, but he took art lessons at night. It was something he always wanted to do full time. For more than four decades after his space career, he chronicled the six missions that landed on the moon. He said, "I feel blessed every day when I'm working on these paintings ... the first artist to ever go to another world and try to tell stories that people care about."

In painstaking detail, he re-created what it was like to be on the moon, using actual moon dust and ground-up remnants of Apollo spacecraft. Before starting each painting, he would spend weeks studying photographs and videos, and calling fellow astronauts to probe their memories.

Those materials and memories are what Bean brought back from the moon, but he also left something behind — his silver astronaut lapel pin. He had thrown it as far as he could into a crater.

He said he thought about it often, "and when I look at the moon at night, [I] think about that pin up there, just as shiny as it ever was, and someday maybe somebody will go pick it up."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

One of the astronauts who walked on the moon has died. Alan Bean was on Apollo 12, the second lunar landing in 1969. He flew in space one more time after that, but it was what he did post-NASA that really left a mark. He died yesterday in Houston. He was 86 years old. NPR's Russell Lewis has this remembrance.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: As the lunar module pilot on Apollo 12, it was Alan Bean's job to help commander Pete Conrad as he approached the moon, monitoring systems and calling out the descent rate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALAN BEAN: Ninety-six feet coming down 6, slow down the descent rate. Eighty feet coming down at four - you're looking good.

LEWIS: Just a few minutes after they landed, Bean and Conrad were struck by the view out the window.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEAN: Holy crud, it's beautiful out here!

PETE CONRAD: It sure is. It's something else.

LEWIS: Bean spent 31 hours on the moon. He and Conrad collected lunar samples and deployed several experiments. They were busy almost the whole time, but as Bean recalled during a 2016 NPR interview, he also had a few moments to take it all in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BEAN: And as I ran along, I remember looking up and saying to myself, you know, this - this is really the moon. We're really here. It was amazing to us, too. That's the Earth up there. And I said it two or three times to myself.

LEWIS: After Apollo, Bean commanded the second Skylab mission in 1973, orbiting the Earth 59 days. Later, he was in line to fly the first shuttle flights, but he had a change of heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BEAN: So the more I thought about it, the more I realized there were young men and women at NASA in the astronaut office that could fly the shuttle as good as I could or better, but I was the only one interested in trying to do this other job.

LEWIS: That other job - it was to paint. So he left NASA. He'd had an engineering background and was a test pilot in the Navy, but he'd also taken art lessons at night. It was something he always wanted to do full time. For more than four decades after his space career, he chronicled the six missions that landed on the moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BEAN: I feel blessed. Every day when I'm working on these paintings, I think, boy, am I lucky to be the first artist to ever go to another world and try to tell stories that people care about.

LEWIS: In painstaking detail, he recreated what it was like to be on the moon. His paintings included moon dust and ground-up remnants of Apollo spacecraft and were textured using tools from his lunar trip. But for all Bean brought back from the moon, he left something behind - his silver astronaut lapel pin, which he had thrown into a crater as far as he could.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BEAN: This - what I think about often - when I look at the moon at night, I look up and think about that pin up there, just as shiny as it ever was. And someday maybe somebody will go pick it up.

LEWIS: Mementos were important to Alan Bean. He believed one day, humans might colonize the moon, and he hoped they'd display one of his paintings. He wanted future explorers to use it as inspiration to never stop moving outward. Russell Lewis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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