The Lunar Longhorn Who Painted an Ocean of Storms

Last July the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 (my take on that here), but we Texas Longhorns have reason for an afterparty this month! 50 years ago, Apollo 12 launched from Cape Canaveral on November 14, 1969, and little do most of us realize that the Lunar Module Pilot of that mission and 4th man on the moon, Alan Bean, graduated from UT Austin with a B.S. in aeronautical engineering in 1955. Of the only 12 souls who have walked on the moon, of course one of them had to come from Burnt Orange Nation! And it's no coincidence that Alan Bean is my all-time favorite astronaut

Captain Alan LaVern Bean, posing next to his Lunar Module Intrepid (left), and on the moon during Apollo 12 (right)

Bean personifies the true underdog story at NASA - though his experience as a naval aviator and test pilot held the makings of an astronaut, the truth is Bean's personality was quite different from "The Right Stuff" characterized by the no-nonsense unflappable cool of Neil Armstrong or the swashbuckling swagger of Buzz Aldrin; he was by nature insecure in a room full of egos, a creative thinker surrounded by left-brained engineers. And so while his fellow astronauts got assigned various missions as the Space Race heated up, Bean found himself with the mundane task of designing potential follow-on missions after the moon landings concluded, unlikely to ever fly himself. That is, until he got his break when his mentor and close friend Pete Conrad, who'd already flown on Gemini 5 and 11 and was set to be commander of Apollo 12, directly asked NASA to assign Alan Bean as his Lunar Module Pilot. It pays to have good friends in high places!

Left: The Apollo 12 crew of Pete Conrad, Richard Gordon, and Alan Bean | Right: The Saturn V getting nailed by lightning during launch

Of course Alan Bean was no fluke, he knew his stuff too. In fact, Pete Conrad was lucky to have chosen Bean because without him, they never would've made it to the moon! During liftoff, their Saturn V was astonishingly struck by lightning not once, but twice, knocking out the rocket's electrical systems! Mission Control quickly figured out the solution to the problem was an obscure command called SCE to AUX, but neither Conrad nor Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon knew the switch ("SCE to AUX, what the hell is that?"). Only Bean knew the command because he'd simulated the same failure in training one year prior. Were it not for his quick thinking, the mission would've been aborted and our Lunar Longhorn would've never had his moonshot

Alan Bean climbing the ladder down to the lunar surface, November 19, 1969

Bean and Conrad landed at a site on the moon called the Ocean of Storms, and like the other moonwalking astronauts, Bean's life was forever changed. Though he subsequently commanded Skylab 3 in 1973, years later when NASA unveiled the Space Shuttle and offered Bean the chance to command those missions as well, he politely refused and instead resigned to pursue his life's true passion - painting! Despite the naysayers claiming he was just having a mid-life crisis, Bean reasoned that there were plenty of other astronauts capable of flying the Space Shuttle, but as the only artist to have ever gone to the moon, he owed it to the world to depict the sights he saw. In his own words, "I'd never imagined myself as an artist. I was always an engineer or a pilot. And then I thought you know, I am the only potential artist that's ever been anywhere but this Earth. Maybe I can make a contribution in art. Maybe I can tell some stories that would be lost forever if I don't tell them with my art"

An elderly Alan Bean in his studio. Sadly, he died in 2018 at the age of 86

If you ever listen to a video of Bean explaining his artwork, you'll be astounded by the level of thought and detail he put into his masterpieces. First off, Bean wanted to add color to the moon, since he witnessed the moon not just as a monotonous gray but as shades of various colors. "I had to figure out a way to add color to the moon without ruining it... if I were a scientist painting the moon, I would paint it gray. [But] I'm an artist, so I can add colors." 

"For One Priceless Moment" - Acrylic on masonite (1986)

Bean also made sure to incorporate the artifacts of his moon landing in his paintings, sometimes sprinkling the moon dust still stuck on his spacesuit into his paint mixtures, adding flecks of the heat shield that protected his spacecraft during atmospheric reentry, or making streaks on the canvas with the actual hammer he used on the moon. And in the decades since, his paintings have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and have repeatedly been put on display at famous exhibits around the world

"Lunar Grand Prix" depicting John Young driving the lunar rover during Apollo 16 - Acrylic on aircraft plywood (1997)

So Alan Bean is my favorite astronaut, not just for being a fellow Texas Longhorn who walked on the moon, but for serving as my constant inspiration to not lose sight of my own passion. My childhood dream has always been space exploration; when people ask me why I didn't study engineering to become an astronaut or rocket scientist, I don't really have an answer. But I have faith I'll make it one day - if an astronaut can become an artist, then maybe an investment banker can one day help put a city on the moon and a footprint on Mars. And just like for Alan Bean, the University of Texas will be my launchpad

"Way Way Up High Over Pad 39A" - acrylic on aircraft plywood (2013)

For another awesome story on Alan Bean, check out this article by The Alcalde, the official alumni magazine of UT Austin