The year is 1965, the date November 14. A violent rainstorm sweeps across the Kennedy Space Center in Florida just as Apollo 12 is due to launch, bound for the Moon. As it heads towards the sky, a flash of lightning travels right through the rocket, swiftly followed by a second strike. Our story is about one of those aboard the ship: Alan Bean. He might well have wondered if his spacecraft would ever reach its destination.
So who was this Alan Bean and how come he ended up on one of NASA’s Apollo missions to the Moon? Entering the world in March 1932, Alan LaVern Bean’s birthplace was the city of Wheeler in the Texas Panhandle. His father, Arnold, came from Michigan and had married his mother, Frances, in 1930. Bean’s sister Paula, two years younger than him, completed the family.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture employed Bean’s dad as a scientist. His work, surveying Texas rivers for likely spots to build flood-control dams, meant that the family moved around a fair amount when Ben was a youngster. But by the time Bean had started at junior high, the family had settled in Fort Worth.
By his own account, his mother provided the main influence on the young Bean. He has explained that his father’s work meant that he had been often absent. And like so many fathers, he went away on military service during the Second World War. Consequently, Bean credited his mother with teaching him the value of “hard work and reliability.”
After graduation from Fort Worth’s R. L. Paschal High School, Bean went on to study at the University of Texas at Austin. While still in high school, he’d won a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship to attend university. He has said that without this help he wouldn’t have been able to afford college.
Writing on his own website, alanbean.com, Bean explained his choice of degree at the University of Texas. “My goal in life, every (sic) since I was about 10 years old, was to become a Navy pilot, so I majored in Aeronautical Engineering because I thought this would make me a better pilot,” he declared.
While still a student, the U.S. Navy commissioned Bean as an ensign and sent him to pilot training. Then Bean graduated in 1955, and in 1956 he was posted to Attack Squadron 44 at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida. He served there until 1960, flying A4D Skyhawks and F9F Cougars. Consequently, the young boy’s dream had become reality.
After his four years with Attack Squadron 44, Bean moved on to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland. Years later, he explained that move on his website. “In a Navy squadron, all the pilots fly the same type of airplane. As I looked around on our aircraft carrier, there were pilots from other squadrons flying other types. I wanted to fly those as well,” Bean wrote.
“I understood if you could become a test pilot, you would be flying all the planes that [the] Navy had,” Bean continued. So it seems that he wanted to become a test pilot, one of flying’s most demanding roles, simply because he wanted try-outs of different types of plane! That probably tells us a lot about the adventurous spirit of the man.
And while the pilot was testing planes at Patuxent River, he decided to pursue another, quite different, interest. As Bean later remembered it, “I enrolled in night school at St. Mary’s College in Leonardtown, Maryland. I was a student in Beginning Drawing and Beginning Watercolor.” We’ll come back to his art.
Looking back with obvious fondness on his time as a test pilot, Bean wrote, “Every day was an adventure for me, and I believed that I had the perfect job for a guy like me.” But then something happened to make him think that there might be another job that he’d relish even more.
Bean described how he’d just completed a test flight and had walked into a staff room where everyone was glued to a tiny black and white TV. What they were watching was footage of Alan Shepard’s pioneering space flight in 1961. As a consequence of this launch, Shepard was the first American in space.
“I had no idea what was about to take place, but I stopped to watch,” Bean was later to recall. “In his 15-minute flight, he [Shepard] had flown higher than I [had] ever been, faster than I [had] ever gone and made a lot more noise doing it. Maybe he had the perfect job for a guy like me.” It seem that Bean had realized that there might be a career even better than that of a test pilot: astronaut.
Shepard went on to walk on the Moon on the Apollo 13 mission in 1971. But Bean had to wait a couple of years before his dream of being an astronaut came within his grasp. Then in 1963 NASA selected him for its space program. It was Bean’s second application – he had been rejected the previous year.
Bean was accepted by NASA for what was called Astronaut Group 3 as the reserve pilot for the Gemini 10 launch. In the event, he wasn’t called on to take part in that flight, which turned out to be a successful mission. It involved orbiting Earth, with astronaut Michael Collins performing a spacewalk. Collins would later fly to the Moon with Apollo 11.
NASA next entered Bean into its Apollo Applications Program, and he was named as one of the reserve crew for the 1969 launch of Apollo 9. But as with Gemini 10, that mission went ahead without him. However, six years after he’d been accepted as a NASA astronaut, Bean’s chance of space travel came in 1969.
In July 1969 Apollo 11 had succeeded in taking three men to the Moon and landing two of them, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, on the surface. The third astronaut, Michael Collins, remained in lunar orbit. What’s more, all three of the crew returned to Earth in one piece. This fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 commitment to land Americans on the Moon before the decade was out.
After this triumph, NASA had no intention of resting on its laurels. A second trip to the Moon, Apollo 12, was scheduled for November 1969. And Alan Bean was chosen as one of the three astronauts to accomplish this mission. He would pilot the Apollo lunar module as it landed on the Moon and later took off.
Bean’s fellow crew members were Commander Charles “Pete” Conrad and Richard F. Gordon, who would pilot the command module, the spacecraft that would stay in the Moon’s orbit and fly the three men back to Earth. Conrad was an old buddy. The two had met at Navy Test Pilot School, where Conrad had been Bean’s instructor.
In an indication of the celebrity that astronauts enjoyed back in the 1960s, General Motors gave the three men a new Corvette every year for a time. And their wives were given the Chevrolet of their choice. “They decided that loaning us a new Corvette every year will get them a lot of very excellent publicity. All of us thought this was a great idea,” Bean remembered.
But it wasn’t all freebies and fame. The three spent time at the Downey, California, North American Rockwell Space Division checking the spacecraft that they would travel in. They also tested the space suits and equipment they’d wear on the Moon in a reduced gravity chamber. Bean believed that he was the first man to experience a “space-age wedgie.”
NASA also required the astronauts to take a crash course in geology. Scientists chose spots that were most closely similar to conditions the men would encounter on the Moon. This meant traveling to rugged terrains everywhere from the western U.S. to Iceland and Hawaii. Meticulous preparation was essential to the success of the mission.
At last, November 14, 1969, rolled around. It was time for Bean, Conrad and Gordon to fly to the Moon, launching from Florida’s Kennedy Space Station. Their precise destination was the Moon’s Ocean of Storms. Unfortunately, a heavy rainstorm engulfed the Saturn V rocket and the space ship just as it took off.
Exactly 36.5 seconds after blast-off, the ship set off a lightning discharge that coursed through the craft down to Earth. A second strike came 52 seconds into the flight. These two strikes knocked out various pieces of electronic equipment, but nevertheless the spaceship continued to fly without a problem. That must have been a relief for the three men perched atop the Saturn V rocket.
However, the strike had caused the fuel cells to go offline. Warning lights now blinked in the astronaut’s cabin. Unless they restored power quickly, the mission faced the possibility of being aborted. Ground control radioed with a fix. The astronauts needed to manually switch to backup power, which wasn’t a routine operation.
Luckily Bean, acting as systems engineer during this part of the mission, had practiced this very scenario during training. And importantly, he’d retained exactly what to do. He made the switch, power was restored to normal, and the launch continued. Once in orbit, the crew checked their craft and found that there was no major damage.
The spacecraft now traveled to the Moon without further major incident. On November 19, the Moon landing module with Conrad and Bean aboard landed safely on the surface. These two astronauts were now respectively the third and fourth humans to step on to the Moon. Armstrong and Aldrin had taken first and second places four months earlier.
There was some anticipation about the TV pictures that Apollo 12 would send back to Earth. Apollo 11 had only had a monochrome camera, but Apollo 12 had a color one. Unfortunately, in an uncharacteristic error, Bean mistakenly pointed the camera at the Sun as he set it up. This destroyed the camera’s workings and ended TV broadcasting.
Bean and Conrad had three stints on the surface of the Moon, spending a total of 10 hours 26 minutes exploring the terrain. Apollo 12’s Moon module had landed an easy stroll, or moon walk, of about 1,200 feet from a previous unmanned NASA spacecraft, Surveyor 3. The two men took items from the probe for examination on Earth.
Conrad and Bean also collected rocks and set up scientific equipment for experimentation. This included measuring the solar wind and the Moon’s magnetic field. Their work on the surface now completed, the two men returned to the capsule orbiting the Moon and piloted by Gordon. It was nearly time to go home.
After one more day in lunar orbit, a time that the men used to take more photographs of the Moon, they made their departure for the journey back to Earth. Bean and Conrad had spent a total of 31-and-a-half hours on the Moon and the return spacecraft had been orbiting it for 89 hours.
The three astronauts arrived back at their home planet on November 24, ten days after they’d set off. Their spacecraft splash landed in the Pacific Ocean some 500 miles to the east of American Samoa. The landing and pickup by U.S.S. Hornet were successfully executed, but they were not without incident.
As they descended towards the ocean, somehow a 16 mm film camera broke free from where it was stowed and, flying across the capsule, smacked into Bean’s forehead. This actually knocked him out, leaving him with a concussion. He was subsequently patched up with six stitches. Perhaps a scar was as good a memento as any of his Moon flight.
After his Moon trip, Bean was far from finished with space travel. His next mission came in July 1973, when he was given the command of the Skylab 3 mission. This involved a flight to the Skylab space station with two colleagues, scientist Owen Garriott and Jack R. Lousma, a Marine colonel.
Despite problems with some of their rocket’s thrusters, Bean and the others safely docked with Skylab on July 28, 1973. A spacecraft was actually prepared for a potential rescue mission because of the faulty thrusters, but in the end it wasn’t needed. The astronauts spent 59 days on the space lab, and while they were aboard they covered a distance of 24.4 million miles.
As they orbited the Earth on Skylab, the three men carried out a range of medical experiments. These were designed to measure the physical changes that affected humans while they were in space. And experiments extended to other species: fruit flies and mice that were aboard the space station. The men also engaged in three space walks, one of which was to repair damage to the lab’s micrometeoroid shield.
So all in all, as we’ve seen, Bean enjoyed a full-on career as an astronaut, a life that included being one of only 12 men to set foot on the Moon. But, quite abruptly, Bean resigned from NASA in June 1981. At the age of 48, the experienced astronaut decided on a radical change in direction.
This new career that he now embarked on had been hinted as far back as the time when Bean had been working as a test pilot in the early 1960s. If you’ll remember, then Bean had started attending evening classes in art. Now he decided to become a full-time artist.
That might sound eccentric. But Bean had a perfectly rational explanation. No artists, he said, had seen first-hand the sights that he had as an astronaut. Bean painted for many years and exhibited at the National Air and Space Museum in 2009. He died at the age of 86 in May 2018.
Words quoted in his The New York Times obituary summed up Bean’s view of his two very different careers. “I think of myself not as an astronaut who paints but as an artist who was once an astronaut,” he said. Whether he’ll be remembered more for his art or his space travel only time will tell.