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After the moon, Alan Bean makes art his mission

Astronaut Alan Bean was the fourth man to walk on the surface of the moon in 1969. Now, almost 30 years later, he wants to take you back using colors, textures and a paintbrush.
Alan Bean's "Reaching for the Stars" graces the wall of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. The painting bears the imprint of a spacesuit boot.
Alan Bean's "Reaching for the Stars" graces the wall of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. The painting bears the imprint of a spacesuit boot.Alan Bean / Greenwich Workshop
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Dec. 5, 1997 — “How did it feel to walk on the moon?” It’s probably the question moonwalkers hear the most. But how can words in any earthly language describe something not of this earth? Enter Apollo 12 astronaut and artist Alan Bean.

Alan Bean traveled to the moon in November 1969, alongside his two best friends, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon. While Gordon stayed in the command module above, Bean and Conrad made a pinpoint landing on the lunar surface. They walked on the moon for about eight hours, and stayed there for more than a day.

Astronaut Alan Bean's visor reflects the image of moonwalking colleague Pete Conrad during the Apollo 12 mission. Bean keeps the spirit of space exploration alive in his artwork.

Five years of training for the moon ended in just a few hours. There was so much to see, so much to experience, so much to do; but they were already going home. As they made their way back to Earth, Bean turned to Conrad and asked, “Is that all there is?”

Bean would travel back into space again as a commander of the Skylab space station and would set a new space endurance record in the process. Back on Earth, he became the chief of astronaut training during a new project: the Space Transportation System — the space shuttle.

In 1981, a few months after the first shuttle flight, Bean decided there was something else he needed to do, perhaps a way to answer the question “Is that all there is?” with a resounding “No.” He exchanged the technology of space flight for canvas and acrylic paint. His detailed memories became his palette. At last, he could take the time to reflect on his flight to the moon.

Since that time, Bean has completed more than 100 pieces. His portfolio is rich and diverse, ranging from the gentle reflection of the earth in an astronaut’s sun visor to the detail of Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard hitting a golf ball on the moon.

“My favorite painter is Claude Monet,” Bean said from his studio in Houston. “His images are soft and beautiful. He painted water, dirt and stones beautifully.”

In his art, Bean wants to show how beautiful the moon is from a first-hand, human perspective. So he carefully paints exacting detail into the spacesuits, the reflective visors, the equipment and, yes, even the dirt.

The moon plays a prominent role in Bean’s art, but many times the focal point is Earth — a planet he thinks should be more appreciated. “I think Genesis in the Old Testament has it wrong. I don’t think we were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Just look around. We’re still in it, particularly when you compare the earth with the moon. The moon has no plants, no life, no water, no animals, no nothing.”

Bean says that’s also true for Mars, and even though the Mars Pathfinder sent back stunning images, “you can go for a drive and see a much more beautiful Earth.”

At the start of each painting, Bean sprinkles the canvas with a touch of moondust (from his lunar spacesuit patches) and a bit of the spacecraft (finely crushed material from Apollo 12’s leftover heat shield). He uses a lunar boot and other space tools to add texture to the acrylic paint. Bean says adding these touches is his favorite part of the process. “Long after I’m gone, people will have these paintings with dust and footprints in them. It will be something really special for people to enjoy and remember.”

Those imprints can be found in his latest work, “Reaching for the Stars.” A mural of it can be seen at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in Florida. It depicts an astronaut leaving Earth, reaching out for a star. Bean says it’s symbolic of the astronaut’s journey and the journey of humanity.

“Everyone is trying to reach for their own stars, and all of those stars aren’t light-years away. They are as close as our job, our family, our children, our next-door neighbors and our good friends.”

When it comes to friends, one of his canvas creations is an image of himself and Pete Conrad on the moon. But there’s also a third astronaut, Dick Gordon. Such a grouping never happened, because Gordon had to wait in lunar orbit to bring Bean and Conrad back home. That’s why the painting is called “The Fantasy.” “Dick Gordon is one of my favorite people in all the world,” Bean says. “During training, (Gordon) never said, ‘I wish I could walk on the moon.’ ” The painting is Bean’s way of saying “you were with us.” Bean says the friendship between the three of them is still strong.

Bean’s goal is to finish 200 paintings. His work may center on the past missions of Apollo, but it’s also very much about the future.

“Apollo is the greatest adventure of all humankind, and it needs to be recorded in every way possible for future generations in books, in movies and on television,” he says. “I’m an artist. That’s the way I care about things. Maybe 200 years from now, someone will say, ‘I’m glad he did that.’ ”