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Former astronaut Alan Bean on artistic voyage

Alan Bean always had a creative streak: as a child, tinkering with his model airplanes until they became perfect little replicas of the real thing and later, proposing aircraft paint designs during his military career.
Image: Alan Bean
Artist Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon, is shown during a preview of his work at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008, in Austin, Texas. Harry Cabluck / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Alan Bean always had a creative streak: as a child, tinkering with his model airplanes until they became perfect little replicas of the real thing and later, proposing aircraft paint designs during his military career.

After he became an astronaut, he took evening art classes as his pilot training allowed. But once he left NASA in 1981 after 18 years, Bean began his artistic career in earnest, mining his own memories to capture images of faraway worlds.

One of an elite dozen astronauts who have walked on the moon, Bean the artist found a new mission: to share his explorations through his paintings, capturing splendors of the moon that are difficult to express in words alone.

"They're not like Earth paintings. They don't look like Earth paintings," Bean said. "They're paintings from another world."

Bean's art is on display at the LBJ Library and Museum at the University of Texas and coincides with the museum's exhibit "To the Moon: The American Space Program in the 1960s."

Bean, 76, was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 12 in November 1969 when he became the fourth person to step foot on the moon. The mission was man's second lunar landing, and scenes from that trip — along with depictions of fellow astronauts' moon visits and occasional fantasy elements tossed in — comprise Bean's collection of paintings.

He was training to become a space shuttle commander when he decided to leave NASA, where he helped set 11 world records in space and astronautics.

"I said, 'You know, there's a lot of young men and women around here that can fly this shuttle as good as I can or better. ... Maybe if I left the space program, which I dearly loved, and painted some of my experiences that I could leave a legacy for future generations that somebody might care about,'" Bean said.

Over the years, he found unusual ways to incorporate bits of space equipment and lunar dust into his Monet-inspired acrylic paintings, which are on display until April 2009.

A friend who ran a Kansas space museum provided tiny pieces of the Apollo 12 command module heat shield which was charred at 5,000 degrees as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere. Bean also used fragments of foil from the hatch between the command and lunar modules.

One day he realized the threads in the framed, dirty patches from his NASA space suit contained moon dust. He cut up the patches and worked them into his art. To create texture, he used some of his moon equipment — his metal geology hammer, part of a circular core tube bit that was driven into the lunar soil to collect samples and a replica of moon boot soles for making "footprints."

"The moon is a rugged place, and it's beautiful in its own ways — Buzz Aldrin said magnificent desolation. It's gray, it's rocky, it's dirty. The sky is black," Bean said, explaining his foray into textures and away from colors that he considered too gentle. "It dawned on me I could do this."

Bean said the question he is most often asked is what it felt like to walk on the moon. He recalls his exhilaration as he looked beyond and saw Earth as a small, bright, beautiful sphere. He felt a long way from the people and places he loved and felt that the experience was unreal, implausible even.

From those emotions he created his 1986 painting, "That's How It Felt to Walk on the Moon."

Another painting, "The Fantasy — Conrad, Gordon, and Bean," shows all three astronauts of Apollo 12 — Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr. and Richard Gordon along with Bean — having fun together on the moon. In real life, Gordon remained in lunar orbit photographing landing sites for future missions.

One of Bean's favorites is "Tracy's Boulder," in which astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt are completing work on the moon's surface. Cernan told Bean he wished he had thought to write his daughter Tracy's name in the dust on the side of a boulder that's in the painting, so Bean completed the work by placing her name there.

Bean, a graduate of Paschal High School in Fort Worth and the University of Texas at Austin, left his own marks on the moon. He planted an American flag there. A Paschal alumni Web site still boasts about the school flag he took to the moon; Bean brought it back and presented it to the school.

One of the biggest benefits of going to the moon, he said, was the heightened awareness it brought of what humans could accomplish.

"I think so many times people say, 'We can do that. If we go to the moon, we can do that.' They say it in kind of a funny way, but I think it's true," he said. "This is one of the great explorations of all time."